Act of God: Meditations on Lightning, Life and Chance
What happens to a person whose life is touched by lightning? How does getting struck by lightning—or losing a loved one to lightning—change a person’s world view? Are such events random acts of nature or are certain people destined to be struck by lightning? Questions of fate, destiny, God’s will, and nature’s intention permeate Act of God: Meditations on Lightning, Life and Chance, a 2008 film directed by Jennifer Baichwal.
Baichwal says the idea behind the film was a simple question: how do people find meaning in randomness? Getting struck by lightning is the “quintessential example of the paradox of being singled out by randomness,” she says in an interview also included on the DVD. So what are different responses to that event? she wondered. “Is it possible to experience something so violent... and not ascribe meaning to it?”
The question, as it turns out, has a lot of different answers.
Getting struck by lightning feels like an act of destiny, intentional, speculates one of the film’s participants, a writer who feels he was forever changed by his close encounter with lightning when he was fourteen. Ultimately, though, he concludes that “there’s no meaning to this. It’s absolutely meaningless. And yet this is the way the world works.”
Every participant in the film has a different interpretation of what lightning means. One suggests that his fascination with lightning, his pursuit of it, allowed him to gain his soul. Another participant says that getting struck by lightning taught him what life was all about. He claims to have died, to have met some spiritual beings who showed him the shame of his past, but who reminded him that he has free will and he can change his life. “Lightning and change go hand in hand,” he says. “And in a single moment, I was changed.” One participant suggests that lightning and thunder indicate Shango’s anger (Shango is a Yoruba god, and likened to Santa Barbara in Santeria); the faithful must provide sacrifices to propitiate him, he suggests. Yet another of the film’s participants feels only grief about her children, who were killed as they knelt and prayed in front of a cross at the top of a mountain in Mexico. Finally, she decides that what God does is for the best. “The Lord doesn’t make mistakes,” she says.
The film’s premise is fascinating, the stories told compelling, and the speculations worth considering. It would have helped to have a narrator linking the scenes and meditations together, instead of a disembodied and disconnected voice occasionally providing some narration. I ached for more information on lightning itself, though Baichwal says that she deliberately avoided the physical and scientific aspects in order to focus on the metaphysical questions. Ultimately, the film feels fragmented and unfinished. But of course, this is another aspect of the film’s artistry. There are no answers to the metaphysical questions in this movie, only speculations. Is it possible to do anything but hypothesize about destiny, fate, nature’s intention, the will of God?