Despite the Gods is filmmaker Penny Vozniak’s documentary about writer-director Jennifer Lynch’s eight-month experience filming a movie in India. The movie in question ended up being Hisss starring Mallika Sherawat, which I haven’t seen, but you can read Filmigirl’s generous review of it here. Despite the Gods had its world premiere last night at the HotDocs film festival in Toronto, with Penny Vozniak, Jennifer Lynch and Jennifer’s daughter Syd in attendance. I’m not sure how much appeal it would hold for a general audience, but I think people who are either interested in the process of filmmaking, in Bollywood, or in India generally, would enjoy the documentary. For someone like me, who likes all three, the film was very entertaining indeed.
Jennifer Lynch makes an excellent documentary subject: not only is she incredibly high-strung and acerbic, but she’s also willing to let the full range of her emotions be captured on camera – crying, getting mad, and in the goofy first stages of love – as well as talking honestly about a variety of personal subjects including the birth of her daughter, the state of her bladder and her non-existent sex life. The film-within-a-film provides the documentary with a relatively good narrative structure. It begins with Jennifer arriving in the hot and noisy city of Chennai, where she is completely overwhelmed both by her surroundings and the disorganization that plagues the film shoot. Eventually, though, we see her develop a slightly awkward rapport and even grudging affection for her cast and crew. At the same time, her relationship with the film’s producer Govind Menon steadily deteriorates as they ricochet weirdly between acrimony and affection. However, as my companion at the premiere pointed out afterward, it is very likely that the footage in the documentary was carefully selected to show Jennifer in a generally positive light, since showing some of her more bad behaviour which undoubtedly occurred while filming would make her less sympathetic as the subject of the documentary.
But in my opinion the real star of the documentary is Jennifer’s daughter Syd, who turned 13 during the filming. A remarkably mature and grounded girl it is heart-warming to see her react to everything eight months in India throws at her with relative equanimity. It’s also interesting to see how involved she gets in her mother’s movie production, whether it’s touching up an actor’s makeup between takes, wielding a cordless drill in the special effects department, playing a game with some crew on location in Kerala, or dissolving into tears after Mallika Sherawat is mobbed during shooting in Mumbai. Probably my favourite moment of the film was a shot of Syd on their apartment balcony in Chennai, gazing across the street where a group of girls are learning Indian classical dance.
During the Q&A following the screening someone asked what happened to the film she shot, and Jennifer revealed that her cut of the film, which she described as “European, languid, and sensual” did not please the producers. So they re-edited the film before releasing it in India, where it was panned by critics and bombed at the box office. Jennifer said she has never seen the re-edited version of the film, and never intends to.