Australia | 2012 | Directed by Penny Vosniak
Logline: A documentary following the difficult journey of an American filmmaker trying to make an arthouse thriller with Bollywood financing.
Australian filmmaker Penny Vosniak’s casual observation of Jennifer Lynch directing a creature feature in India is innately fascinating, and quietly entertaining, revealing a very down-to-Earth, emotionally fragile, yet genuinely passionate filmmaker, who just happens to have a world-renowned, cult-classic director for a father.
Jennifer Lynch wrote her first feature, Boxing Helena, at the tender age of 19. She was encouraged to direct it, but the movie was ridiculed by harsh critics, and an even crueller public. The movie, a modern fairy tale that Lynch had intended as a blackly comic, dark romantic fantasy, but which many audiences and critics took seriously, tanked at the box office, and ended up on more Worst Movie lists than you shake a severed arm at.
After a fifteen year hiatus, her second feature, Surveillance (2008) earned her a Best Movie award at a European film festival, the encouraging news of which she got whilst on the set of her third movie, Nagin: The Snake Goddess (released in 2010 as Hisss), in the sweltering heat and chaos of India, alongside her adolescent daughter, Sydney.
Lynch has described the experience of directing the movie as like a clusterfuck of cooks in the kitchen, or thereabouts. Funded almost entirely with Bollywood finances (the production had to be filmed using dual English and Hindi language takes), with two many fingers in the pie, her father’s maverick traits came back to bite her on the arse when the frustrated Indian executive producers, unhappy with her artistic deliverance, pushed their weight around and wrenched the movie from her control in the editing suite. It was re-cut to try and make it more of a conventional horror movie, and subsequently Jennifer publicly distanced herself from the movie.
For a movie supposedly costing $6 million, the day-to-day filming on location appeared to be more like a guerrilla set-up. No doubt the buxom Bollywood star, Mallika Sherawat, would have come with a tidy fee, and no doubt special effects whiz Robert Kurtzman wouldn’t have come cheaply either, but the CGI looks dodgy, and no doubt Jennifer’s subtleties of mood and tone all ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s a real shame, as I doubt we’ll ever get the opportunity of seeing a director’s cut.
Where the documentary becomes especially interesting is the close attention it pays to the relationship between the frustrated 40-year-old single mother, who yearns for a partner, and her precocious 12-year-old daughter, who is endearing, but is driving the line producer barmy. Jennifer leans on her daughter for emotional support, and one of the crew jibes that he can’t tell who is the daughter and who is the mother. Jennifer rolls her eyes.
Despite the Gods covers the entire eight-month Indian shoot, from the dry season to the wet season, with all the dust, bugs, monsoons, exotic customs and rituals, union strikes, language barriers, and scheduling delays in-between. Jennifer was endeavouring to make a movie that empowered women, that juggled humanity and inhumanity, that championed female sensuality, carnal ferocity, and embraced Far Eastern mythology, and the serpentine grip of the supernatural. What she got for her troubles was a seemingly never-ending headache, and the heart aching toll of having your art stolen from you. But, inadvertently, she got to conquer some inner demons as well.
At doco’s end, four years after production ended, a pink-dreadlocked Jennifer sits with her now 17-year-old daughter (who still looks the same!) and Jim, the man who saved her from going insane during the tail end of her exotic rollercoaster ride. Yet Jennifer has long accepted the emotional and psychological bruising of that experience and she wouldn’t trade it for anything. She’d even go back and do it again, and while she’d change a few of her decisions, she’d also make many of the same mistakes again.
And therein lies the coil of The Creative Rub.