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Courtesy of Hot Docs

Act of God

Thought-provoking documentary examines the primal role of electrical impulses on our planet and in our minds

By David Wilson

Act of God
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
(Mercury Films)

We all wonder, at one time or another, about the line between happenstance and design. People who have been struck by lightning tend to wonder about it a lot. Can you blame them? There are few experiences more profound than to be struck by a bolt of electricity randomly snaking down from a cloud.

In this thought-provoking documentary by Toronto filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, we meet several people who were struck by lightning and lived to tell the tale. We also peer inside the question that invariably haunts them — why me? — and the paradox they come to embody: how can you be singled out by randomness?

The film’s deeper musings reflect Baichwal’s academic background as a McGill University philosophy and theology student. The big questions she asks in the film are compelling but are perhaps explored more thoroughly than they need to be. The stories of the lightning-strike victims make the point nicely on their own. Their eyes say it all: everything changes in the nanosecond that fate picks you as a vessel for millions of volts of electricity.

Reactions are as varied as the individuals involved.  As a teenager, author Paul Auster saw lightning kill a fellow summer camper next to him. He refuses to attach deep meaning to the event but admits he has made a career out of writing stories about chance. A former CIA assassin who had a near-death experience after being struck now runs a worldwide organization that helps the dying. A Mexican mother who lost a son to a lightning strike at a mountaintop shrine believes God took him away to be an angel.

Baichwal sets the stories against a fascination with the primal role of electrical impulses on our planet and in our minds. A random lightning strike may have created the chemical building blocks for life itself. Human consciousness is the product of billions of tiny electrical connections in the brain. As British researchers show when they attach electrodes to avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith and measure his brain activity as he improvises, these connections grow more frenetic the more we abandon ourselves to chance.

While she’s intrigued by the metaphysics of her subject, Baichwal’s own relationship with lightning is ultimately spiritual. The film’s title evokes not a religious conviction but rather the awe in which she holds her subject matter. Lightning is more than a bolt from the sky. It is a message from a higher power. What that message might be, what that power might be, is up to each of us to discern for ourselves. But I can guarantee everyone this: see this movie and you will never look at a thunderstorm the same way again.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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