A decade and a half ago, Jennifer Baichwal completed a master’s in philosophy and theology at McGill University, with a thesis titled Reinhold Niebuhr, Sin and Contextuality: A Re-evaluation of the Feminist Critique.
Watch the trailer for Act of God
“Now, imagine who’s going to be interested in that?” laughs the Toronto-based documentary filmmaker, in conversation from Victoria, B.C., where she grew up. “I kind of am still preoccupied with those questions [of philosophy and theology], but one of the reasons I didn’t go on to become a professor was that I was so discouraged by the narrowness of the medium of inquiry....I thought, ”˜What would be a better way of exploring these questions?’ And I turned to documentary as a form that was much more open and accessible, and had the capacity to move you emotionally, viscerally, and intellectually.”
Baichwal evidently made the right call. Her debut film, Let it Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, won a 1999 International Emmy for Best Arts Documentary; her next, The Holier It Gets, won Best Independent Canadian Film and Best Cultural Documentary awards at Hot Docs 2000, and Geminis for Best Editing and Best Writing.
She also won a 2007 Best Documentary Genie for Manufactured Landscapes, which followed Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky as photographed the impact of industry in China.
But it’s in her latest work, Act of God, which closes the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Saturday [May 30] and has its theatrical release in Vancouver on Friday, June 5, that Baichwal’s philosophical leanings come most boldly to the fore.
An exploration of the phenomenon of being hit by lightning, the film is anchored by interviews with individuals whose lives have been affected by the experience, including American author Paul Auster and Canadian playwright James O’Reilly, both of whom watched friends die as a result of being struck.
“The event of being struck by lightning is kind of the perfect metaphor for being singled out by randomness,” explains Baichwal. “I think there is a relationship, or attention between meaning and randomness in most of our lives. The questions ”˜Why me? Why now?’ or ”˜Why her? Why him? Why them?’ Those questions come to us all, especially when things we cannot explain happen to us.”
While some in the film attribute divine meaning to deadly lightning strikes—a mother in Santa Cruz, Mexico, whose son was one of five children killed while praying at a cross on top of a mountain, believes that God took her child to be an angel—others like O’Reilly have the opposite reaction. “The experience of being struck, and the person standing right beside him [O’Reilly] being killed...precipitated this existential crisis,” observes Baichwal. “He just basically became a nihilist, and I thought that’s fascinating as a response.”
Meanwhile, Auster struggles not to assign meaning to the event which affected him as a teenager, but Baichwal notes that “even though he says, ”˜I’m not going to make a religion out of it,’ all his work is preoccupied with this question.” “Even if he doesn’t admit to unwarranted meaning, he can’t help circling around it all the time. Coincidence is a theme that runs through all his work.”
Having spent two years immersing herself in the topic, interviewing victims and shooting lightning storms with her husband and cinematographer Nick de Pencier, Baichwal says the only conclusion she’s come to is that “narrative is, perhaps, the most basic meaning that we give to things that happen to us that we can’t really understand.”
Most of us live, she offers, somewhere “in the continuum of meaning and randomness.” But the lives of those who appear in her film, in one terrifying instant, swung to one extreme or the other, forcing them to the edge of nihilism or determinism. It’s one hell of a thesis.