HotDocs 2012: DESPITE THE GODS Review
This observation to the camera, uttered by a crew member at one point during a bit of down-time during the shooting of Bollywood horror-fantasy HISSS, nearly encapsulates things in a single thought. A rare US/India co-production involving an indie director Jennifer Lynch, and collaborating with significant Bollywood stars Mallika Sherawat and Irrfan Kahn, featured a six million dollar budget an and heavy media spotlight. Chaos and confusion is nothing new to film sets (or any creative process) but Lynch seems ill prepared for the trial-by-fire culmination the language barrier with her Indian crew, a producer who is the Bollywood super-star's brother, and the seemingly never-ending battle with nature, cities and the culture. To top things off Lynch, who is a single mom, has her 13 year old daughter Sydney in tow for the ride. The movie begins with the director taking up smoking again, just for kicks. Penny Vozniak was asked to stay on by her friend, the producer Govind Menon, to help Lynch look after Sydney and also to shoot some EPK (behind-the-scenes electronic press kit) stuff for the eventual DVD release. As the production both drags on and spirals out of control with clashing ideals - the crew and producer want speed, the director wants care - Vozniak ended up sticking around for the entire 8 months (only 3 of them were 'scheduled') of shooting and the result is Despite The Gods, a very candid look at the experience of an seasoned and pedigreed director (Surveillance took the top prize at Sitges' in 2008) slowly losing her grip on the production and burning out in the process.
Now let us quash the amusing if way-off-base gossip from the Bollywood-focused press that this film is an attack piece by the director on the star. There is no name-calling or he-said-she-said silliness on display here, and thank goodness for that. Quite the contrary: if anyone is seen in a less than flattering light, it is the director herself, who is frequently caught flummoxed by her situation to which she all but admits that she is out of her depth. Nevertheless, movies are, in general, empathy machines and Lynch is clearly the focus of this one. I feel for her as she faces her anxieties of the disaster that HISSS is devolving into and soldiers on trying to achieve her vision while still parenting her daughter on set. The great irony being that HISSS is a movie about male hubris & violence contrasted with female sexuality and cluelessness (the results being children and immortality) There are so many mirrors at play here, but the reality is situation this is every director's (regardless of gender) nightmare. At one point a couple of the assistant directors notice that Lynch is bleeding from a small cut on her arm and they take the small amount of her blood to rub it on each others forehead as a sign of bonding.
The film was taken from Lynch and final cut was determined by the producers. I've seen the 2010 Hindi cut of the film, and despite a lingering image or three, it is indeed an epic disaster plagued by bad CGI and an editing job that is truly incompetent in any sort of ability to connect either the narrative or the thematic elements into anything close to cohesiveness. Despite The Gods benefits from all the drama and location shooting disaster (although things are nowhere near the levels of bad-karma achieved by Terry Gilliam in Lost in La Mancha - the holy grail of 'everything-can-and-will-go-wrong' movie making) but it also functions as a fascinating look at Lynch's daughter while on set. How she interacts (or gets in the way) of the crew, and the associated extra social intricacies due to her being the (white) director's daughter. Sydney's 13th birthday falls on a shooting day, and there is a small cake-break for here where her mom feeds her cake as if the two are getting married. Her mom causally drops F-Bombs and engages in the same highly acerbic tone with her daughter as she does with the crew. Lynch cares for both, even while she is frequently exasperated. When filmmakers use the metaphor of films as their children, this cements that. Also, Lynch is far from high-and-mighty, she asks for final say in the decision making process, and when a scene is actually done, but she's not afraid to get down and dirty and is frequently shown placing gore on extras, scrubbing elephants, or laying down mud before Mallika Sherawat has to writhe around in it.
All the while, Vozniak, keeps a watchful eye on the beautiful surroundings of the various urban and rural locations. Each establishing or extra shot of a location - a cat eating raw carcass from the garbage, a rooster strutting in the morning, a woman doing laundry and picking through garbage seemingly simultaneously, and sunlight glimpsed through a flash-rainstorm. The latter images is as if the Gods are indeed crying for the Heart of Darkness that everything turned into while offering hope of a happy ending. Despite this, the film does dribble to its downer (and well known conclusion) but leaves behind a documentary that in 85 minutes does give breadth and scope to the 8 months of production-time that passes, it even has a segment where Lynch has a long-distance romance with a pink-haired fella named Jim, which eventually evolves into a somewhat weird nuclear family - this is the daughter of David Lynch after all, and even unborn (!) Jennifer was apparently the inspiration for Eraserhead. How's that for expectations/baggage lumped on your shoulders?
Lynch admits at one point, that if you have to have problems in life, they might as well be film-making problems - it's all relative, and nobody dies of cancer on set or anything - and Despite The Gods goes a long way to putting that into perspective in a compelling and colourful way. Like any documentary of this sort, there is a lingering desire to see the director's hinted at, by the very producer who re-cut it, 'languid, sensual, European edit.' I am betting that it is indeed miles ahead of the 'lost in translation' sledge-hammer version that was foisted on an unsuspecting Indian audience and pulled from every major genre-festival in the world and never released theatrically in North America. I would love to see it, if only to answer the question, "Isn't it beautiful?"