Monday, August 24, 2009

Let there be lightning: Jennifer Baichwal discusses Act of God

The cloud looks lonely and monstrous, cradling some dying sun inside it. Though it’s only the first of many such ominous masses of droplets to loom throughout the film it’s the one that lingers in my mind. It seems to hold an unusually potent charge of destruction and wonder, but it rests there in the sky, suspended static, all threat.
Act of God by contrast could be described as all question, an essay on chance and meaning that uses stories of being struck by lightning as a platform for meditation, without concern for hard results.

Paul Auster

Featured among the film’s subjects is novelist Paul Auster, modern literature’s custodian of chance, and musician Fred Frith, for whom improvisation forms the bedrock of his practice.
Act of God ends not with a summation of theoretical points but rather a sort of duet between these two, with Auster describing an incident from his childhood where the kid next to him was fatally struck. The interplay between narration, guitar and percussion is buoyed by the filmmakers’ reining in of atmosphere, their evocation of the electrical brooding that precedes a great storm.

Fred Frith

There’s also James O’Reilly, whose monologue about death by lightning inspired the film. There’s Dannion Brinkley, the Las Vegas Lazarus whose near-death experience spurred a career as caregiver and New Age guru. There’s Alex Hermant, who remains off-camera while his lightning museum in Marcenat, France is on curious display. There are trips to Cuba and Mexico, where reverence for lightning assumes religious properties. There’s also a trip to a lab where we get to peek inside the electrical currents flowing through Frith’s brain while he develops one of his spontaneous creations.

Jennifer Baichwal

Jennifer Baichwal’s previous films Let It Come Down, The True Meaning of Pictures and Manufactured Landscapes profiled author Paul Bowles and photographers Shelby Lee Adams and Edward Burtinsky respectively. In each case the subject served less as material for straight biography than as a launch pad for a discussion of larger themes extrapolated from their lives and work. Act of God breaks from Baichwal’s established model by using a chorus rather than a single subject to address its theme. The result—sculpted in part by Baichwal’s husband and cinematographer Nick de Pencier, not to mention editor Roland Schlimme—works quite well more often than not, and the coda is exquisite. I spoke with Baichwal during the film’s premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto last spring. Appropriately, her responses to my questions rarely leaned toward conclusions.

Act of God proceeds along these two distinct parallel thematic trajectories. It addresses a phenomenon that directly effects only a very small number of people, yet at it also invokes ontological questions that effect everyone. Which aspect sparked the film?

JBa: My background is in philosophy and theology, so I think about these sorts of questions a lot. How much meaning can you ascribe to events before becoming deterministic? How little meaning can you ascribe before becoming nihilistic? I read James O’Reilly’s monologue
Act of God, about being struck as a young man and this existential crisis that happened as a result. His description of the moment of the strike and his immediate response to it were so interesting. On one level there’s this physical event, something that can be explained by weather and science and probability, et cetera. On another it’s the perfect metaphor for this struggle between meaning and chance. So what sparked the film was really both things simultaneously. I mentioned to Michael Ondaatje that I was thinking of doing this and he suggested I talk to Paul Auster. As well, Nick has always been fascinated by lightning.

JB: Funny that someone whose medium is photography would be so fascinated by something so difficult to photograph.

JBa: Almost impossible. It’s so fleeting. But Nick taught himself to be an electrician when he was young and knows a thing or two about electricity. We wanted to shoot our own images of lightning. If you look at the existing archive, most of it’s very unsatisfying. It’s generally only about the event itself. It gives no contextual information whatsoever.

JB: Your films thus far has been to some extent profiles of artists. I wonder if
Act of God somehow also emerged from a desire to understand generative acts or creativity, accidents that bring flashes of insight or inspiration.

JBa: It’s no accident, I guess, that two people in the film are writers, and one’s a musician. I always turn to art when examining questions of the human condition. Even though Auster and O’Reilly resist ascribing meaning to what happens to them they can’t help but frame it in narrative, which you could argue is another way of doing just that. If the film’s thesis is that narrative is the most basic way we can create meaning, then the parallel of that was Frith’s improvisation, which struck me almost as an existential state of being between meaning and randomness. The fact that he embodies an electrical current somehow; to be able to see what that internal electrical storm in his brain looks like; to hear Frith’s brother explain how the brain learns by being confronted by the unexpected; to hear Auster describe his essay ‘Why Write?’ as an ars poetica but without theory, just stories—these are the essential things the film tries to address.

Plugging into Fred Frith's brain

JB: By creating these narratives we’re also attempting to free ourselves of the burden of these experiences on our consciousness.

JBa: It’s true. Why does that process allow us to be free of these experiences? Is it just because it stands in for making sense where sense can’t really be made? We tell stories about these things and it’s a way or ordering, of creating coherence.

JB: Did you ever consider a more didactic approach? Bringing in some sort of authority on meteorology, say?

JBa: I did wonder at one point if we might bring in someone to talk more about the science. The funny thing is that whenever you see TV shows about lightning, for example, the emphasis is always on demystifying it, where I really kind of wanted to do exactly the opposite. I wanted it to remain a mysterious force that precipitates all of these questions. I’m never really interested in making things didactic because I feel like if these questions we’re asking were very easy to answer then the subject wouldn’t be a very interesting thing to spend five years of your life working on. I don’t think it would be interesting for a viewer to spend 80 or 90 minutes on. Making a film like this is about opening up a space to think about something that’s not easily dismissible.

JB: There’s a significant gamble making a film like this because while it is a sort of essay film you’re entirely dependent on the quality of material you get from your subjects. How do you get them to align their statements reasonably closely to the thread of your film?

JBa: Finding the right stories is part of the process. When we went to France, for example, we didn’t know that Alex Hermant was going to say that he didn’t want to be on camera. We went a long way to interview him—the guy wasn’t in Paris, he was in the mountains. We went there with the kids and my mother, who was there to take care of them. So when Hermant laid this on us, Nick and I just looked at each other and thought, Well, this must be the essential thing about this person. This is the key to him. Let’s use it. Your relationship with our subjects is the most important element in any documentary. Unless there’s some exchange of vulnerability, some sense of authenticity, it’s not going to work. Finding a place where you can communicate can sometimes take days. Sometimes it can happen immediately. With Paul Bowles it took 30 hours to reach that place. With James O’Reilly, just the act of taking him back to this place where he hadn’t been for 30 years, watching him walking around trying to find the site for two days, watching him perform this spontaneous recreation, it seemed to find us all together in that place we needed to be. Because we didn’t set up that recreation. I could never set that up. I just don’t do that. I feel like I can always tell the directed act in a documentary. The person walking away thoughtfully, or whatever. You can always tell when it’s something they’ve been told to do.

JB: That’s something that Herzog seems to have mastered though, the created/spontaneous act. Of course he also made numerous fictional films before he was able to do that. But I was thinking that you do have one very Herzogian character in your film, this Dannion Brinkley. Were you ever concerned about the authenticity of his testimony?

JBa: There’s something completely bizarre and coincidental about him living in Las Vegas, the city of odds. When I asked him why he lived there he said it was the most spiritual place on earth. [Laughs] I don’t quite agree with that. But I absolutely believe that Dannion’s transformation is real. I’m sure there’ll be people who feel what he’s saying is untrue. But in some ways it’s not important whether you believe him or not. I wanted his story to be told the way he wanted to tell it.

Baichwal and Nick de Pencier at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival

JB: Given that
Act of God is so much about the search for meaning, I wonder if you feel like your own beliefs have made their way into the film, even if only through some unconscious process.

JBa: It’s impossible for me not to be in every frame in some way. It’s not like these stories are somehow being directly transmitted and there’s no author behind it all. There’s no question that we—Nick, our editor Roland, myself—had an enormous impact on how those stories were told. Yet despite the fact that I would disagree strenuously that objectivity is ever possible in documentary, I do think truth is possible. We tried to shape things to retain as much fidelity to how people tell their own stories as possible with the tools at our disposal. It’s the way the whole is framed that’s very much informed by my own personal questions about these things. And also my lack of an answer. I don’t mind living in that uncertain place.

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