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Act of God
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by Jason Whyte

"Don't get struck by lightning. Got it."
4 stars

Jennifer Baichwal made a splash on the Canadian documentary circuit with her 2006 film “Manufactured Landscapes”, which followed photographer Edward Burtinsky as he photographed polluted landscapes in Asia. It was a success here in Canada as well as on the international festival circuit, and Baichwal, a native of my hometown of Victoria BC, makes another mark with her new doc “Act of God”, all about the effects and – if you’re lucky to survive, the aftermath -- of being struck by lightning.

Paul Auster is one of the first subjects. You may know Auster as the writer of one of my favorite screenplays, “Smoke”, which was turned into a 1995 fiim directed by Wayne Wang starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. Seeing that film was one of great inspiration; Auster was in a camp decades earlier and one of his closest friends was struck by lightning, which was something that deeply changed him yet didn’t write about until years later.

His story made me stop and think for a second. There was an unforgettable passage in “Smoke” where Harvey Keitel’s character takes William Hurt out to lunch and tells him the story of when he was younger. He recounts how he randomly met a woman on the street who is blind, and when he helps her back to her house he discovers a whole section of SLR cameras, and develops a passion for photography because of it. He doesn’t know why the cameras are there, but nevertheless that event changes his life and he becomes a new person from that happening in his life. Had Auster’s friend decided not to go out that night and become electrocuted, would he have become a writer and have put together that scene, let alone the script? And how connected to his past was it any way?

Among the other interviews, there’s James O’Reilly, a playwright who was struck by lightning in the late 70’s and has some real up close and personal recollections of his past. There’s also a visit to Mexico where the filmmakers visit a parade dedicated to Shango, God of Lighning, as well as a musician Fred Firth who has a sequence where he uses an electrical device on a guitar to make some truly unique sounds.

What this film does is make you think about the big questions in life; not just the why we’re here and what we’re here to do, but also the questions of why something comes along when it does and sets us up on a new path. The act of lightning is something when a hot front and a cold front come crashing together, but if that lightning hits a person, what does that really mean? What if you were there a second before, or later? Where would you be now? These are big questions of our mortality.

I also admired the way in how Baichwal sets up her documentary and her subjects. It all depends on the kind of documentary you are making, of course, however I have seen so many documentaries with nerve-wrecking hand held photography and rapid editing. That can work in its own right (I’m looking at you, Dear Zachary or Best Worst Movie) but I have also seen examples of documentary films that fail to engage the audience visually. Her camera is at an absolute calm, watching intently on its subjects and their surroundings, using long takes and long lenses to bring you into the world. There’s almost a photographer-feel to Baichwal’s images, as if you could take them and frame them on your wall.

In writing this review I have tried to make the film sound NOT boring, or something you might see on a documentary channel somewhere. “Act of God” is a strong, meaningful work that looks great on the big screen, and one that you should bring a group of friends to discuss in the lobby afterwards and share your thoughts. Yet “Act of God” is at its heart entertaining, something that all films should be before anything else, and I admired the questions I asked myself as I left.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19018&reviewer=350
originally posted: 06/07/09 01:05:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival For more in the 2009 SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/29/09 Becky It is awesome, very creepy on the big screen. 4 stars
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