Despite the Gods
Credits: Directed by Penny Vozniak
Details: 85 mins, Australia,
Synopsis: Jennifer Lynch, daughter of renowned filmmaker David Lynch, made her directorial debut in 1993 with Boxing Helena. Critics savaged the film, a box-office disaster, and Jennifer retreated from the public eye. Fifteen years later, now a recovering addict and single mother, Jennifer travels to India to direct Hisss: a creature-feature film about the vengeful snake Goddess Nagin. But things go wrong very quickly. Perhaps there is a good reason why Hollywood and Bollywood have never blended like this before...
Nightmare film shoot spun into fascinating documentary.
It’s a story of resilience.
INDIAN FILM FESTIVAL OF MELBOURNE: Despite the Gods, from director Penny Vozniak, is supposed to be a documentary about moviemaking in India. It’s really a real-life psychodrama about a filmmaker, Jennifer Lynch, and her struggle to keep her life on track in the midst of a production process she doesn’t quite understand, while trying to balance a very large load of personal baggage. By the time Lynch lands in India to direct a Bollywood horror-fantasy about a snake-woman, Vozniak makes it clear that Lynch seems to have had more than her fair share of outrageous fortune.
Lynch, the daughter of David Lynch, gained a special kind of notoriety with her first film Boxing Helena. Debuting at Sundance in 1993 as the hot ticket of the festival, it was smacked down, once it unspooled, as ‘dead on arrival’. After that, Lynch says here, she lost it a bit; translated, that means lots of alcohol and drugs.
She was clean and sober by the time her second feature Surveillance was released in 2008 to a mixed reception. Soon after its completion, Lynch was asked to direct a $3 million co-production called Nagin: The Snake Woman for producer Govind Menon (Lynch ended up re-writing the script). Lynch, with her precocious 12-year-old daughter (Sydney) in tow, arrives as a single mum looking for a husband in Chennai in mid-2008. Straight away the director finds a production defined by chaos and no apparent leadership. Only days before shooting is meant to begin Lynch finds that no one has organised a production schedule. When it finally arrives, it’s hand-written. This turns out to be an omen. There are multiple delays throughout the shoot: there’s crappy weather, a strike, and bad blood between authorities and the production over allegations of religious insensitivity.
Shot in an observational style that eschews narration and formal interviews, Vozniak’s own project started off as a ‘behind the scenes’-type promotional film, but it seems early on in the shooting process the director saw Lynch as, what media makers like to call, great ‘talent’. It helps that Lynch loves the camera as much as she adores making on-screen admissions about everything from her complex (and loving) relationship with her daughter, to the pressures of withstanding a feverish libido. Part of what makes this stuff so attractive is that Lynch is simply great fun to listen to; her voice has the same weird cadence as her father – a delightful combination of irony and innocence. She’s not the withholding type; at one point, when the film looks set to spiral out of control she recalls watching her dad go crazy in the wake of his Dune disaster. It’s almost embarrassing to see Lynch tearfully recalling the memory. But a large part of what this movie is about is watching Lynch’s determination to tough out the bad stuff. It’s a story of resilience.
It’s also a story of mother love. Vozniak captures Lynch and Sydney bicker, make up, banter and carry-on like they’re playing out some form of bizarre cabaret comedy routine. Sydney seems to keep Lynch sane, and while the production barely remains in her grasp, the importance of a solid emotional bond for Lynch to hold onto takes on an urgency that’s very touching.
With a personal style that is both blunt and folksy, Lynch attracts the confidence of a crew unused to playing a subordinate role to a woman in authority. Vozniak and her editor Melanie Annan don’t hammer hard at the ‘culture clash’ theme endemic in this material, but they’re alive to it, and none of the stakeholders here come off as demonised.
Still, Vozniak spends quite a bit of screen time detailing Lynch’s push/pull relationship with her producer and star Mallika Sherawat. Writer Menon seems unhappy about the way Lynch shoots the picture (after three days, she is two days behind.) He bullies Lynch by demanding Sydney be barred from the set (which Lynch steadfastly refuses to do). Lynch’s relationship with Sherawat is more complex. The star came to the role with a reputation as a strong woman prepared to defy the conventions around female sexuality in Bollywood cinema; but that doesn’t stop her whingeing about the revealing costumes Lynch has designed for the part. As the project grinds on over eight months, Sherawat loses all patience. Vozniak offers an unflattering portrait of the star; late in the movie Sherawat is seen showering director and crew with a relentless cascade of complaints and snide remarks.
Hisss was finally released in 2010. By then Lynch had fallen out with the producers. The reviews weren’t appreciative: “This is pornography for the hormonally demented teen,” said one critic published in the Hindustani Times. And that was one of the nicer reviews.
Lynch reminds me a lot of the kind of person my mother would call a ‘character’. That is, someone with a big personality, perhaps eccentric, sometimes in possession of a unique and exotic gift or talent and completely unafraid to give voice to very private thoughts in the most public of spaces. Or to put it another way, Lynch doesn’t censor herself. You have to know my mother, but when she dubbed someone that way, it was with a mix of admiration and, well, fear. That’s because bucking social niceties and standing out isn’t always pretty or sweet. But sometimes it’s the most decent thing to do.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
A month of movies with an edge. Saturday nights in April.