Writer/Director: Penny Jovniak
A tightly wound American film director thrust into the Eastern cultural maelstrom that is modern India sounds like a wacky comedy borne out of a Studio City pitch-meeting. But Penny Jovniak’s Despite The Gods is most definitely not a comedy; in fact, it’s a daunting character study of an artist racked by her own insecurities, instabilities and inabilities.
That the artist is the enigmatic Jennifer Lynch only adds fuel to the fiery personal and professional circumstances chronicled in Jovniak’s compelling work. On location in India in 2008 to film Nagin the Female Snake Goddess, the already controversial story of the overtly sexual mythical temptress, the abrasive, passionate Lynch clashes with…well, everybody in trying to get her modern horror/musical/pro-feminine vision to the screen.
As a study of a collaborative and expensive work of art spiralling out of control, Despite the Gods is as good an account of miscalculated filmmaking ambitions as Hearts of Darkness, Man of La Mancha and Full Tilt Boogie. Lynch, still best remembered in Hollywood for the debacle that would become Boxing Helena, pertinently draws comparisons between this, her third film (after the largely-unseen Surveillance), and the troubled production that was her father David’s mental undoing, Dune. Scenes in which she expresses deep-seated fears that her mind is headed down the same path as her fathers, whose breakdown she witnessed as a young girl, are very moving.
Yet the film attains its most profoundly insightful moments when it relates to Lynch single-parent status and the role her then 12 year-old daughter Sydney must play on location in India. ‘Syd’ is often called upon to act as her mother’s emotional crutch, whilst also struggling with the often cruelly sexist local attitudes. Jovniak (who developed the project while employed as Syd’s nanny) captures a complex, at times sadly lopsided dynamic between mother and daughter, the access to intimate moments and trust established with her subjects obvious.
Despite the Gods may be construed as a pro-feminist essay; Indian actress Mallika Sherawat emerges as the film’s strongest personality, defying traditional expectation both in the physically revealing role she plays and via the manner with which she deals with disrespectful crew members (notably producer Govind Menon). One of the many hurdles Lynch, Syd and, presumably, Jovniak strive to overcome is the general attitude towards a female being in charge.
But this wonderful film is about a great deal more. Lynch is a uniquely talented individual whose art both flourishes under and exponentially adds to her neuroses. Like Boxing Helena, the journey of her film (now retitled Hisss) to the big-screen is a far more entertaining story than the film itself. Here, the art serves as a starting point in the artist’s real journey and Jovniak captures that rocky road with a compassionate yet unflinching gaze.