Saturday 2 May 2009

Act Of God

The storm rolled in Thursday night and the skies of Toronto blackened as the rain fell on the opening of the 16th edition of the Hots Docs Film Festival. Standing in line amidst hundreds of umbrellas for the initial screening of Jennifer Baichwal's new film "Act Of God" (about the residual effects of people getting struck by lightning) provided countless opportunities for comments about how the fates had conspired to roll in a storm just in time for this particular film.

Is that really "fate" though? Or is it simple random chance and coincidence - like nature improvising its weather patterns so that it just happened to dump rain on my fair city during this highly anticipated film? That's one of the questions which forms the base of Baichwal's latest documentary. By interviewing several people who were either struck by lightning or who lost a loved one who was, the film examines different perspectives regarding the question of why. Why them?

Author Paul Auster and playwright James O'Reilly were profoundly affected by their own separate lightning strikes - each of which killed a friend of theirs who was standing within reach. Both men were compelled to write about their experiences with O'Reilly finally getting to it 20 years after the fact by putting his feelings into the one man play called "Act Of God" - one of the main inspirations for the film itself. Auster talks about the randomness of things and how these events just happened with no reasons behind them. O'Reilly's view is not quite as settled: "I can't accept that it happened for a reason, nor can I really accept that there is no reason. The only way to carry on is to be humble, and a little bit in awe of these things you can't really understand".

Others have different interpretations of course...There's the man who became a hospice volunteer to help people transition to "the other side" after he himself experienced moving towards the white light when he had been struck by lightning. A small Catholic village in Mexico suffers a great loss when 5 children are felled by a single strike and while some believe that these children must be part of a greater plan, others simply aren't so sure. In Cuba, there are those who pay homage to the god of lightning, Shango, in order to stave off his anger.

All these stories run in and out of the film, but underlying it all is guitarist Fred Frith. As a member of Henry Cow as well as having performed on numerous other solo outings, side projects and guest appearances he has apparently made over 400 recordings. He also happens to be a master improviser. Early in the film, his head is wired up in order to map neural activity when he plays a song he knows well and when he plays something he makes up on the spot (he quips that he doesn't actually know any songs since he always improvises). The images of Frith's neurons firing morph to images from space of lightning flashes - two different kinds of improv electrical activity.

I can't forget to mention the many displays of these electrical discharges between Earth and sky in the film. This is probably some of the most impressive and beautiful footage I've seen of lightning. Along with a number of YouTube clips they found online, the filmmakers spent years capturing shots of spectacular balls of flames rolling through clouds and storms where half the sky seems to be exploding. It's breathtaking stuff and by itself worth a visit to a theatre.

Of course, there's more to it than that. The different perspectives and attempts to make sense of it all collide with the absolute randomness of it all - the sister of one of the dead boys says to his friends "why are you all still here and my brother isn't"? There's some disturbing moments as well - the description of one poor young man's death after having his internal organs cooked by the lightning is terribly gruesome. The ideas presented in the film and the link to improvisation are fascinating, but it's pretty disconnected in its presentation. Certain stories felt too long while others were too segmented, certain ideas were explored at length while others were barely touched upon and the film ends during one of Frith's improvisations that, though it was a remarkable collage of sounds, left me a little unsatisfied.

So it's messy, jumbled, hard to predict and not always on target. Kind of like its subject matter.

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