Almost 20 years after the critical and commercial annihilation of her debut feature, “Boxing Helena,” helmer Jennifer Lynch emerges as the strikingly candid subject of “Despite the Gods.” Filmed in India while Lynch was directing the trouble-plagued India-U.S. co-production “Hisss” (2010), this is a penetrating, highly entertaining portrait of Lynch as an artist and single mother living through the despairing lows and exhilarating highs of filming on the subcontinent. Mining territory similar to such moviemaking-is-hell essays as “Lost in La Mancha,” Penny Vozniak’s first docu is a natural for fests, and its hourlong TV version should attract plenty of smallscreen action.
The kind of natural performer documakers dream of, Lynch cuts a compelling figure from the very first frame. Accompanied by her 12-year-old daughter, Sydney, Lynch arrives in Chennai in mid-2008 to make “Hisss,” a sensual fantasy based on an Indian legend about a shape-shifting serpent. Filmed under the title “Nagin: The Snake Woman,” the pic reps a $3 million risk for producer Govind Menon and toplines Mallika Sherawat, a Bollywood star known for her outspoken views on screen sexuality and taboo-busting kissing scenes. The production turns out to be an eight-month ordeal.
During the chaotic pre-production, Lynch recalls her long path back to sobriety following the disaster of directing “Boxing Helena” at the age of 19. With her second feature, “Surveillance,” playing the festival circuit, Lynch already senses “Hisss” may suffer the same spectacularly unfortunate fate as “Dune,” the third feature made by her father, David Lynch.
With production two days behind schedule after just three days of shooting, such fear seems justified. Among the many setbacks suffered are a technician’s strike forcing production to move to Kerala; an 11-day wait for dailies to become available; and cops being called in following complaints about filming at prayer time in a Muslim neighborhood. Showing signs of flagging under pressure, Lynch is told bluntly by producer Menon: “If you can’t hack it, quit.”
The winning extra dimension to this behind-the-scenes story is the study of motherhood in extremely challenging circumstances. Aware that Sydney’s presence on set is creating difficulties, Lynch offers brutally honest reflections on her position as a solo parent with neither the means nor the desire to pack her daughter off elsewhere.
Anything but a chronicle of only doom-and gloom, the docu is sprinkled with wonderfully funny moments: A caterer reveals an amazing talent for mimicry, and Lynch shows a penchant for hands-on direction where blood-and-guts makeup effects are involved. The final sequence, filmed in 2012, updates viewers on the fate of “Hisss” and brings to the fore a lovely element of romance hinted at previously.
Vozniak’s ability to coax frank testimony from everyone is as impressive as her steady handheld camerawork. Other tech aspects are on the money.