Thursday, June 7, 2012

2012 SFF Review: Despite the Gods (Penny Vozniak, 2012)

Despite the Gods is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival. The lone session is Saturday 9 June, 6.30pm.

Despite the Gods is a documentary put together over the course of the shooting of Hisss, a US/Indian co-production about a snake who can take human form. It is an ambitious project written and directed by Jennifer Lynch, the daughter of director David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), and the director of the critically savaged Boxing Helena (1993) and the award-winning Surveillance (2008). Hiss was shot on location in India and stars Bollywood starlet Mallika Sherawat.

Director Penny Vozniak, a friend of Jennifer who was asked to take footage of the production for the DVD extras, follows the tumultuous shoot for over eight months (the original scheduled allocation was three months) and Jennifer, dealing with an array of issues – cultural difference, desire to realise ambition and craft as opposed to relinquishing that for speed and disassociation, and compromise at every turn – becomes more and more comfortable opening up to the camera.

There is a cultural and language difference between Jennifer and many of her cast and crew. Some of the crew become superstitious, while an actor even refuses to use the hand he is instructed to wield a prop with. There were numerous delays because of weather conditions, but also because of a circumstance where the entire shoot had to be moved to a different city. The film’s producer, a prominent Bollywood director, is unhappy with the presence of Jennifer’s teenage daughter on set and continually threatens to take over the project.

Sherawat, a huge star in India, drew too much attention wherever she went (immovable mobs meant they couldn’t shoot where they desired) and grows increasingly uncomfortable with her image given what appears to be a tasteless treatment of her character. The film looks like a mess, and with such a small budget and what seems to be an inexperienced crew when working outside of Bollywood constraints, it might have been a doomed project from the beginning. It might be a grave mistake, but I am intrigued to see how it turned out.

This film, while a privileged insight into this bizarre, yet undeniably interesting project, doesn’t offer much more than a document of life on set and Jennifer’s mental state over the course of the production – her growing doubts about the success of the film, her confessions about her relationship with her father, and her bafflement at the reaction to her 1993 debut Boxing Helena, which was a box office disaster and led to her retreat from filmmaking. Now a single mother, she still seems to possess some talents as a filmmaker, if Surveillance, which premiered out of competition at Cannes and won Best Film at the Festival de Cine de Sitges, is anything to go by. We hear her personal thoughts when faced with pressure and Vozniak effectively captures the on-set atmosphere. Unfortunately, because it is exclusive to the set – only relaying Jennifer’s return to California with an intertext - it becomes a little bit monotonous by the end and doesn’t sustain ones attention.

My Rating: ★★1/2

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