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Despite the Gods
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by Jay Seaver

"At least one good movie emerged from the "Hisss" experience."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are many warning signs, but when the person hired to get electronic press kit/making-of footage for a movie comes to the producer and asks if she can hang around more and keep her footage because she thinks she may have a feature, it's generally not good for the main production. Sure, it may mean that a masterpiece for the ages is being created, but for the likes of "Hisss", a trainwreck is more likely. "Despite the Gods" isn't the most spectacular cinematic crash-and-burn you'll ever see, but it is both one of the most unusual and one of the most inevitable.

Hisss, initially known as "Nagin", was created with notions of being a crossover hit in both India and the west; its story of a sexy snake demon in the modern world starred Mallika Sherawat and Irrfan Khan (who manages to duck this documentary's cameras), recruited American Jennifer Lynch to write the script and direct, and had Hollywood gore masters KNB doing special-effects makeup. As soon as the cameras roll, things start to go wrong, from a technicians' strike to bad weather to an almost entirely male local crew not working well with a female foreign director. The production stretches out to eight months, an incredibly long time for this sort of picture.

The interesting thing about Despite the Gods is that it doesn't necessarily feel calamitous, but rather more like something that just got stretched out for no definitive reason until so much had been invested in it that it could neither stop nor possibly be a commercial success. It doesn't chronicle a full-scale meltdown like Lost in La Mancha, or feature a singular moment of collapse, but instead shows how many little compromises and sacrifices get made along the way, both to other people and factors completely outside of human control.

It's far from a complete downer of an experience, though - the rituals to making a film in Bollywood are intriguing in and of themselves. In some ways, it seems even more chaotic than its western equivalents, with all the star-driven chaos of a big Hollywood studio production but the improvised madness of an independent production. The bits that survive from the original making-of incarnation of the project have a nice focus on small details, like actually building a set or having a member of the crew make animal noises for the foley.

The filmmakers are an interesting group. Jennifer Lynch is known for a number of things - her strange debut film (Boxing Helena) and her famous father David foremost among them - but despite those unusual credentials, she's a likably down-to-earth subject, recognizing the absurdity of the project but also with a pride that is both admirable and potentially self-destructive, especially as she clashes with producer Govind Menon. Menon has been a successful filmmaker in his own right, and while he's not an outright villain, he's bottom-line oriented in a way that causes tension with Lynch. That's especially true where her daughter Sydney is concerned. Twelve at the time of filming, Sydney winds up being one of the highlights, and a reflection of the whole process in some ways: She's right at the border between childhood and adolescence, and depending on the day is either delighted by everything new and different, pitching in wherever she can help, or wanting to just go home and have things be normal.

There are times when one wonders if perhaps director Penny Vozniak is too friendly with or deferential to her subjects; a scene of Sydney finally hitting the wall is memorable for being one of the few times when the misery that the audience expects. As much as this is a record of how many things add up, there are times when the full effect seems muted, although considering how close she was to her subjects, it is impressive how she does allow Lynch to not always come across in the best light.

"Hisss" was Lynch's third film, and at one point she compares the experience to how her father's third film, "Dune", got away from him. Fortunately, she survives the experience and moves on, and the audience gets a good idea of just how many moving parts a movie has, and just how they can go awry.

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originally posted: 09/17/12 12:53:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Penny Vozniak

Written by

  Jennifer Chambers Lynch

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