Despite the Gods

3.5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: May 5, 2012
Reviewed at the 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
Cinema of the absurd

There are likely very few documentaries that turn out as the director originally imagined. Capturing real-life experience is fraught with unexpected twists—frequently more bizarre than could be expected in fiction (cross-references below).

Director/cinematographer Penny Vozniak took on a calculated risk when she decided to follow sometime filmmaker (and daughter of David Lynch, proving beyond doubt the power of heredity) Jennifer Lynch to India for a shoot in the summer of 2008. Nagin the Female Snake Goddess had star power (notably the beloved superstar, women’s advocate Mallika), a devoted if occasionally time-challenged crew and a tough-guy producer (Govind Menon) who used his abrasiveness and financial clout to drive the film out of Lynch’s domain as her vision was summarily recut into Hisss, recouping its cost in the huge Indian market but being stillborn in the U.S. (At the Q&A following the world première, Vozniak teased the crowd with her understanding that a copy of Lynch’s original was around “somewhere.”

Still, the IMDB listing gives full credits to Lynch, belying her total disconnect from the “Comedy, Drama, Horror, Thriller.” Vozniak’s production suffers from the same fate: just what sort of film did she—finally—have in mind?

As the location is forced to shift locales from Chennai to Kerala due to a labour disruption, the film begins to sputter in concert with the unexpected upheaval. Without doubt, Lynch is the star, candidly sharing her hopes, dreams and lusty desires (having sex twice a day seems a noble goal) even as the single mom instructs pubescent daughter Sydney in the ways of the world at home and abroad.

Thankfully much humour abounds, yet the tears-in-your-eyes funny comes from Krishna the caterer who gleefully provides the sound designer with a spectacular array of spot-on imitations from a baby’s discontent, to a cat with daggers drawn (he ought to be given a tour around the U.S. talk shows with such a gift for mimicry).

Vozniak excels when she pans her camera away from the tumultuous film set and into the general populace. Not surprisingly, women of all ages and occupations (one artfully picking garbage from an open sewer is particularly haunting) who must believe that their next life can only be an improvement on their current lowly state. Sadly, that portrait of two worlds must await another day to really make its point à la Deepa Mehta.

Come for the fun of learning just how gore is produced for the big screen, but don’t expect to walk away with a better understanding of the East/West divide. JWR

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