The extraordinary new documentary “Despite the Gods” made its USA debut in the Windy City, premiering at the Chicago Film Festival Thursday night, October 18. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the troubles that director Jennifer Lynch faced while trying to film a horror movie in India. But despite the gods’ lack of cooperation, showering her production with spotty weather, difficult terrains and a culture-clashing crew, Lynch stood strong as a beacon of light throughout. This documentary, directed by Penny Vozniak and produced by Karina Astrup, is not only a salute to the talent and resolve of Lynch, it’s a celebration of creating film, even in the worst of circumstances.
Jennifer Lynch has been helming movies since she was only 19, when she wrote and directed the controversial “Boxing Helena” in 1993 (http://bit.ly/bQZALk). The slings and arrows that critics threw Lynch’s way over her complex horror story would’ve stopped many in their tracks, but not this talent. She persevered and has won film festivals with subsequent work, and fostered a 20-year career in a town that tends to eat its young. However, nothing could equal the difficulties she’d face trying to make “Nagin the Snake Goddess”, her effects-laden horror story, being shot on location entirely in India.
Lynch’s goal was to make a sensual, exotic thriller, but Vozniak’s ‘making of’ documentary often portrays the shoot as a black comedy. The amount of bad luck the production experienced would suggest the gods weren’t exactly genre fans. Scenes about to be shot are suddenly shut down by protests from religious leaders. Bollywood star Malika Sherawat, stretching here as Lynch’s slithering and sexy protagonist, is mobbed by adoring fans everywhere, delaying production for hours, even days. And to add insult to India, Mumbai extras faint in the heat with no doctor on hand due to the paltry $3 million dollar budget Lynch was given to work with (http://bit.ly/19RTsEV).
That might make some directors throw a hissy fit and hide in their trailers, but not Lynch. In “Despite the Gods”, she’s shown to be marvelously adept. She’s a much stronger force than any monsoon and remains focused and passionate throughout. She even laughs off the constant barrage of misfortunes and malarkey, making chicken curry out of the proverbial chicken you-know-what. After all, this is a woman who’s handled testerone-drenched Tinsel Town and survived, hell, thrived. She’s shown to be one incredible, multitasking earth momma here, dealing with sexist crews, sweltering temperatures, and the demands of an in-tow teenager (the adorably savvy daughter Sydney).
And watching Lynch work her wonders makes for one of the better documentaries to come down the pike in years. It surely merits an Oscar nomination, as it’s not only a fascinating tale about moviemaking, but Vozniak herself proves to be a superb filmmaker. Her camera never feels intrusive, and she cuts cleverly and judiciously, without ever drawing undue attention to her editorial work. She observes the situations with a clear-eyed view; attentive to the details, albeit with no heavy-handed telegraphing of how we should feel that can often sink such things. (Hello, Nick Broomfield.)
Vozniak clearly shares her subject’s passion for storytelling. She showcases scene after absorbing scene of Lynch doing the dirty work on her production, sometimes literally, like when she grabs gobs and gobs of mud to add to an outdoor scene. We see Lynch doing everything she asks her crew to, whether it’s standing in waist-high water to capture a shot, or touching up some make-up when they’re short-handed. Especially engaging are the scenes where Lynch cajoles and coaxes great work from her actors. Her lauding of Sherawat’s acting plays like a thrilled mom cheering on her kid at a soccer game. If Vozniak’s showcasing of such things doesn’t make you love the movies, nothing will.
Even towards the end, when you find that the producers of the film have wrestled control away from Lynch and rejected her final cut as not being commercial enough, you remain positive because Lynch still is. Of course, she’s not happy with such a maddening rejection of her vision, and she refuses to watch that misguided producers' ‘cut’, but she remains mature and stalwart about the strange biz she’s in, even if it too often forgets the ‘show’ part of it.
Lynch tells us that there are many more stories for her to tell, and she looks forward to telling as many as possible. And she's exceptionally good at horror, and knows that the best scares are those that tend to have a great deal of humanity at its core, like the story of her snake woman out to avenge an evil man who stolen her love and life (http://exm.nr/LIlegL). Here’s to hoping she gets as many chances as she wants to make more thrillers, or any other kind of movie she wants to make. Based on the evidence of her career, and this documentary, her talent and her courage will ensure it. Vozniak should too, as she’s a real comer in the world of documentary filmmakers. This is one very special film, a must-see for any film fan, or anyone with a creative bone in their body.
Now I want to see Jennifer Lynch’s cut of “Nagin”. Will somebody please give her as much money as she wants to keep making movies, as well as enough moolah for her to buy back her film? In the venomous world of filmmaking, a survivor and talent like Lynch deserves at least that.