Act of God Jennifer Baichwal

One of the more concrete things in Jennifer Baichwal’s often mystifying new doc is the title: Act of God. It sounds concrete—sort of for sure—but it’s also misleading. The film’s ostensible subject is people who’ve been struck by lightning. The topic automatically prompts associations with a supreme being, particularly among the film’s interviewees who’ve had the good fortune to survive the experience. (As the old saw goes, it’s much easier to believe in Hell once you’ve been there.) Baichwal’s point of view is not religious; in fact, the strength and beauty of her project resides in its stubborn insistence on agnostic fuzziness.

Two significant factors in ensuring the film’s metaphysical openness involve the participation of the best-selling author Paul Auster, and the avant guitar hero Fred Frith—two individuals, as it happens, who have not been zapped by thunderbolts. (Auster, at a formative age, was close enough to a strike for it to be life-changing.)

The film, always discursive, never explicitly explains the appearance of Frith, who is seen with his head wired via electrodes to a computer. Neuroscientists are using him as a test subject for research involving brain activity during the act of musical improvisation. The science—not unlike the film—takes a poetic turn as we realize the experts are trying to quantify a brainstorm.