JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Act of God (Director: Jennifer Baichwal) - May 2, 2009

Act of God

3.5 3.5
75 min.

Reviewed at the 2009 HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
Invitation to the Earth

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time takes on extra meaning when Mother Nature opts to bellow thunder and hurl lightning at suddenly polar-friendly terra firma. Human beings caught between a bolt and a hard place suffer instant death, lingering brain injury and/or life-altering epiphanies that are difficult to imagine unless you’ve walked a mile in their carbonized shoes.

Thanks to filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier, the after-effects of these 1-in-700,000-odds’ strikes are brought into horrifically mesmerizing view and accompanied by a music track—much of which could easily stand on its own— that magically reinforces the storytelling.

Like tornado and hurricane chasers who revel in the next big storm, driving fearlessly into harm’s way for an up-close-and-dangerous look at nature’s fury, de Pencier’s camera has captured the truly magnificent power, glory and terror of several electrical firestorms unleashed near Georgian Bay.

Copious still photographs chronicle split seconds of direct hits and the carnage in their vertical wake. Survivors—notably writers James O’Reilly (whose play shares the same title as the film) and Paul Auster—recall their own near-death experiences with compelling honesty (and blind devotion to higher entities in the case of a Mexican family forever devastated by an “act of God”), which—in a flash—transform innocent children into heavenly angels for reasons that remain totally unfathomable.

In Cuba, the legend of Shango (a mythological Nigerian king who displays his displeasure with an unending supply of thunder and lightning) must be appeased by his subservient mortals to quell his wrath. Cue the pagan pageant—sharing the tradition with the Catholics’ Santa Barbara and slaughter the chickens—whose fresh feathers, once brushed over pious believers, will keep them safe to live and fear another day.

The musical cantus firmus comes in the form of Fred Firth and his ever-so-appropriate electric guitar and the creative trust from the Rheostatics (cross-reference below). Gamely plugged in for an EEG (electroencephalogram), Firth’s personal electrical output (i.e., neuron activity) is charted for research during 7.5 minutes of improvisation where “mistakes” are revered rather than shunned. Perhaps so, but the finest improvisers in the world are those who lovingly cherry pick their musical life’s stores of experience and weave them into a quilt that seems/seams fresh and new yet has its basis in successive “rights” rather than vrai “wrongs.” What can really be learned from the charted results remains as mysterious as the randomness of live-or-die lightning.

Still, best of show is the inventive guitarist’s “Ode to the Storm.” Deftly utilizing bow and bowel techniques to mimic the on-screen view of unbridled, natural savagery (at least from our point of view), closing off with an aurally apt and symbolic shake of a chain.

Intriguing and engaging as all of this is, the film can’t find its true focus or allow a new truth to emerge. But then, what are the chances of creating a masterpiece every time? JWR

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Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival Mongrel Media
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
for related work: