Jennifer Baichwal isn't afraid of big ideas. Her documentaries have looked at the politics of photography, the rituals of mourning and environmental degradation -- and this week she signed on for a new film about Margaret Atwood's book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.
Then there's Act of God. On the surface, it's a film about people who have been struck by lightning, from writer Paul Auster to Mexican villages. But Baichwal's latest project - opening Toronto's Hot Docs film festival tonight and at theatres across the country tomorrow - is also a deeper exploration of what she calls "the paradox of being singled out by randomness."
From her home in Toronto, Jennifer Baichwal took your questions. Your questions and Ms. Baichwal's responses appear below.
Sasha Nagy, globeandmail.com: Welcome Jennifer. Thanks so much for joining us today. I am interested in your take on the hunger for reality television and how that "realty" affects how documentary films are digested by the audience?
Jennifer Baichwal writes: I do think that documentaries explore the truth, but not in a way that is objective- that is impossible. I think that people are hungry for anything that lets reflect about the world. The illusion of objectivity in reality based shows becomes tiresome because it is acutally very manipulated, and not true.
Anon Honimous from Sudbury writes: Hi Jennifer, I love your work. Could you give us an idea on how you got your start in documentary filmmaking? Aside from the idea of the documentary, how involved are you with the technical aspect of it all?
Jennifer Bacihwal: I started as a philosophy and theology student and then panicked at the idea of doing a Phd and writing papers for obscure journals for the rest of my life. So I turned to film to explore those questions in a more accessible medium. Consequently, with no formal training, my technical knowledge is a bit shaky, but I've learned a lot over the years, and of course have my husband Nick, a tech whiz, as backup.
Sasha Nagy asks: Acts of God discusses random acts and focuses on people who have been struck by lightning. How close have you ever come to being struck by lightning? What is the lesson that you have gleaned from talking to people who have experienced this random act?
Editor's Note: The live discussion was delayed by a seemingly random e-mail disruption, which this editor vowed never happens...
Jennife Baichwal: The faulty email at the G & M is an interesting random event we could spend the rest of the hour talking about! We did come too close to lightning a few times, as about 2/3 of the footage we shot ourselves over the course of two years. Sometimes being the tallest thing in a thunderstorm holding a metal tripod was pushing it a bit. But the 'lesson', if there is one, is simply that this event seems to focus thought on something I think we all ruminate on to some extent: the relationship between meaning and chance in life. Why me? Why now? That kind of thing.
Sasha Nagy writes: I once interviewed someone who had been struck by lightning and it was memorable in that the man, hit while golfing in Edmonton, had lost his hearing, and had to write on a whiteboard beccause he could not speak. In passing notes and making animated gestures, he got his point across. What I will remember however, was the ferocity of the damage done to his body and golf bag. It was incredible. It stood in start contrast to his demeanor which was very upbeat. Does this seem consistent with some of the people you encountered?
Jennifer Baichwal writes: Perhaps it is 'energizing' if you don't get too strong a shock. I read a story of a man who was smoking with his head out a window during a storm and was struck, and he said he felt 20 years younger afterwards! This, however, is an anomaly. Usually the physical effects are quite severe. Sometimes a person's body can be untouched but their clothes, especially if wet, can literally incinerate and evaporate.
Sasha Nagy writes: Your next film will be Margaret Atwood's book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. A timely subject. Debt seems to be an industry unto itself. Society's mantra seems to be "I am in debt, therefore I am." Okay, perhaps that is just me. How to approach a project with someone with such stature as Ms. Atwood. Does your approach change depending on the person, or source of inspiration, behind the project.
Jennifer Baichwal writes: The idea of working with someone as iconic and brilliant as Atwood is intimidating, but in person she is wonderfully accessible, gracious, funny and generous! And the book, which is fascinating, has so many cinematic possibilities that I forget about feeling nervous and just get caught up in the ideas ... How to translate intelligently? When you think of it, the metaphor owing and being owed - sin, justice, revenge, redemption, reconcillliation - has been central, certainly to Western cultures for centuries. So my approach to figuring it out doesn't really change. But that doesn't make it any easier.
Sasha Nagy writes: I recall watching a documentary film that put forth a wild thesis on the 911 attacks on the United States, and it made a very compelling argument, then suddenly towards the end the director revealed that the film was a deliberate attempt to show how easily the news can be manpilated to create an alternate version of the truth. The point, I think was to show that one must watch the news critically, and that in fillm, that truth can be skewed to further an agenda.
911 conspiracy theories aside. Do you think that people should trust the "news" more than they might trust the information you put forth in a documentary film?
Jennifer Baichwal writes: Absolutely not. We all know that perspective informs everything. Even the surveillance camera is pointed in one direction instead of another. So I think we need to be critical responders to any kind of information.
Brenda P from Nanaimo, B.C. writes: What is the source of your research in regards to the relation between electricity in the brain and getting struck by lightning? As a practitioner of a form of energy therapy that relies on the body's electromagnetic response, I was very intrigued by your comments (in the video posted on this site) regarding electricity.
Jennifer Baichwal writes: Because we are essentially electrical beings, and we live in an electrical world, we wanted to have some element in the film that made this connection. So we asked Fred Frith, master guitar improviser, if we could measure the electrical signals in his brain through EEG when he was improvising music. And he said, "Well if I did that, it would have to be with my brother, Chris Frith, an eminent neuroscientist, who has talked with me about these things before." So that is how we began the experiment with Fred that runs through the film. Of course it would take years of research to come up with something definitive but we did find out that the act of improvising involves the brain " not only producing the very thing that you are doing, but simultaneously being unaware of what is about to happen next." Which is very clever of it.
Tor Fan from Toronto writes:: I love your work and am very much looking forward to Act of God. It would seem to be quite a break from most of your previous films, which have explored the sensibilities and visions of artists. How did this project originate, and how do you think it relates to your body of work?
Also - congratulations on the pickup by Zeitgeist, as well as the forthcoming Margaret Atwood adaptation!
Jennifer Baichwal writes: Many thanks for the congratulations! Act of God is different from our previous films in that it started with an idea that came from James O'Reilly's monologue, Act of God, about being struck by lightning in South River, Ont. as a young man. O'Reilly's existential crisis as a result of the strike, got me thinking about metaphysics, and how lightning strikes are a perfect example of the paradox of being singled out by randomness. So as you can imagine, this is a pretty vague idea. It took a long time to focus the question, and to find a constellation of different responses to it.
Sasha Nagy writes: Thanks so much for taking part in this. Apologies for the random behaviour of the Globe email system today. Bad email. In closing, where can people across Canada see Act of God if they are unable to see the Hot Docs' premiere?
Jennifer Baichwal writes: It opens at the Varsity in Toronto tomorrow (Friday, May 1st) and will roll out across Canada in the next month or so. Check Mongrel Media The film will eventually be broadcast on CBC's documentary.