Time flies! Two years ago, we recommended Jennifer Baichwal’s eye-popping portrait of China, “Manufactured Landscapes”—or, actually we should describe it as her documentary about world-famous landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky and their joint visions of dramatic change in China.
“Manufactured Landscapes” was widely praised by critics because, quite frankly, there’s no other film about China quite like it. Baichwal and Burtynsky, for example, take us into the eerie world of toxic Chinese villages that try to salvage “our” mountains of E-waste: surrounded by tons of “our” old computers and other debris. In the same film, they also show us “ship-breaking” yards where entire ocean-going vessels are transformed as if by human ants. We see the interiors of vast factories and even the world-record-setting Three Gorges Dam project.
In that film, we keep moving back and forth between anger, horror, fascination, wonderment, beauty and, in the end: awe. We’re left in awe of what humans can do to our planet and to each other—for better and often for worse.
It’s this “awe”—true wonderment at the magnitude of human potential for good and evil—that is such a rare experience, now.
SPECIAL NOTE: If you’re concerned about the ecological issues we mentioned above, you’ll definitely want to check out OurValues.org this week, where Dr. Wayne Baker is exploring related issues. He asks: Why are our human responses to global crises, like climate change, so muted these days?
RIGHT HERE, then, I want to tell you about Baichwal’s latest documentary: “Act of God,” just released today by Zeitgeist Films for home viewing on DVD. In an earlier age, we had painters, sculptors, stained-glass artisans and stone masons who could open our eyes in fresh ways. Today, documentary filmmakers may have the best shot at our ever-shortening attention spans—partly because their films bring us vivid glimpses of honest-to-goodness truth.
In 75 minutes of “Act of God,” Baichwal invites us to break out of old patterns of thinking as we explore lightning—as well as creativity, chance and coincidence.
I found novelist Paul Auster (photo at left) the most fascinating person in the film. As “Act of God” opens, he explains to us: “It has something of the Divine about it—something just so transcendently scary about it. It opened up a whole realm of speculation that I’ve continued to live with ever since and I think it’s deeply implanted in all the work I’ve done, all the writing I’ve done and everything I’ve thought about ever since.”
He’s talking about a traumatic experience in his childhood when he witnessed lightning strike—and kill—a boy named Ralph.
Hearing Auster talk about this experience makes one think long and hard about his strange body of work like the metaphysical mystery novels, The New York Trilogy, where “catching a bad guy” isn’t really the point of the stories. These books are far more disturbing than typical mysteries because they’re really mysteries about the nature of mystery itself.
As “Act of God” unfolds there are several speculative “sub plots”—for example, one in which the filmmaker visits scientists trying to map electrical patterns in the brain. There’s a suggestion that, somehow, electrical patterns in our brains mirror lightening patterns and maybe this might relate to our capacity to understand the universe. They key words here are: Speculative. Somehow. Maybe. These forays are Interesting, but not nearly as engaging as listening to people coming to terms with actual lightening strikes.
Auster’s life-changing incident took place during a summer camp hike, many years ago. “Everyone was in a fairly buoyant mood,” he recalls and the hikers even managed to lose track of their original trail. “If we happened to get lost, what difference would that make? … Then it began to rain …”
Soon, all the boys were soaked. Eventually, “the storm was on top of us. It turned out to be the summer storm to end all summer storms. … The rain fell down so hard, it actually hurt.” Then, lightning!
“Dancing around us like spears! It was like weapons were dancing around us in thin air!”
I don’t want to spoil the film by telling too much here, but you hopefully get the point: There are far larger forces at work in our world than most of us appreciate in daily life.
Sometimes, it takes a jolt to wake us up.
ReadTheSpirit recently named Zeitgeist—and other independent film distributors like Zeitgeist—among our “10 Spiritual Sages to Watch in 2010.”
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)