Hot Docs Interview: ‘Despite the Gods’ is Real and Raw

Hot Docs Interview: ‘Despite the Gods’ is Real and Raw’s Ashna Singh speaks with director Penny Vozniak for a real and raw look at "Despite the Gods", which made its world premiere April 28th in Toronto at Hot Docs 2012. 'Despite the God's is co-presented by

Despite the Gods brings us behind the scenes on the set of Jennifer Lynch’s (daughter of cult film auteur David Lynch) Bollywood/Hollywood action film about a man-eating snake goddess. Out of her depth shooting on location with an Indian crew and two top Bollywood stars, Lynch turns her production into a vehicle for her own self-actualization, paying no regard to timeline, budget or reality. As the story in front of the camera derails, the story behind the camera explodes.

Q. Who or what inspired you to make this documentary?

I was inspired to make this documentary after I met Jennifer Lynch in Mumbai by chance. I was on my way to Kabul to work on another documentary and I stopped off in Mumbai to catch up with Govind Menon, the producer of Hisss and an old friend of mine. 

He asked me to stay for a few weeks to shoot a DVD extras video for Hisss, but after spending a week with Jennifer and her daughter, I decided to stay for the entire shoot and make an observational documentary centered on Jennifer's experiences making Hisss. 

Jennifer is a documentary filmmaker's dream protagonist: very open and expressive and she was strangely comfortable for me to film her around the clock, in all her incarnations. This is a rare thing...she has no facade.

Q. In “Despite the Gods”, it is evident that the film was not produced in the most glamorous conditions. Describe your mental and physical state while filming in India. 

Yes, it's true. “Despite the Gods" was not produced in the most glamorous conditions. Physically, it was grueling...I spent eight months shooting solo (in observational style) up to 14 hours a day and in challenging conditions. 

Since I work as a solo operator there was added pressure. I had to make sure that I was getting the story AND that technically, the film was on track at all times. 

When you shoot observationally, you are naturally very focused on what's happening in the lens at that moment, so my mental state was rather neutral when I was shooting. But it did take its toll on me mentally after a while. Following Jennifer so closely, I started to go through the same emotional arcs as she was. I was out on a limb making the documentary; she was out on a limb making Hisss . I had my own high stakes in my personal and professional life to challenge me every day.

"Pitching east against west was not my intention."

Q. How did you maintain the cultural sensitivity in the documentary?

I have been to India several times and I find the culture rich and diverse. It's an intriguing place. I understand very well why we are drawn to this fascinating country. I was very aware of making sure that India did not come across in a negative light in the documentary. Pitching east against west was not my intention. 

The thing about India and the Indian film industry is that things are done differently. But different doesn't necessarily mean negative or inferior. One of the things I love about India is how what we perceive as chaos is actually highly efficient and organized. It is just unfamiliar to us because we are from another culture. Jennifer admits this herself in the film.

Q. South Asian Canadians love to see echoes of Bollywood, such as music, dance etc., in films. What do you think would appeal to them in “Despite the Gods”?

I think Bollywood fans will enjoy “Despite the Gods” because it peeks behind the scenes but it is a very real and raw, not glamorous, peek into the realities of movie making. And, there is a little Bollywood moment in the documentary - a scene from the Holi set with lots of colour, chaos, dancing and celebration.

Watch the theatrical trailer HERE!

Q. Bollywood’s Mallika Sherawat loses her temper in a scene where she feels a fellow actor is not performing up to par. Do you think women are forced to have a negative/aggressive attitude in Hollywood/Bollywood?

I don’t feel that women are forced to have a negative or aggressive attitude in Bollywood or Hollywood at all. We can choose our own behaviour. 

The scene where Mallika loses her temper, in my eyes, is completely justified. The reason she is upset is because in this scene the men are about to rape her character because they think she is from a lower caste...and therefore it is hardly a crime. The actor needed to hit Mallika on the face, but when he delivers a fake slap, she is infuriated because in her own words "it can't be a fake action in a scene like this." 

Mallika has often spoken out about violence against women in India so this scene struck a chord with her. I was impressed that she wanted to risk getting hurt to make sure the scene was sufficiently violent and authentic.

Q. The documentary depicts a sense of female empowerment as the female characters try to rise above their personal and professional challenges. What did you find most empowering about the film? About Jennifer? About Mallika?

I am glad that you feel the documentary depicts a sense of female empowerment. What I find most empowering about the film is of course Jennifer. She overcomes her personal and professional challenges with a brutally raw grace. 

I am the daughter of a single working mother. She, like Jennifer, taught me that in this day and age women don’t have to choose one or the other - family or a career we are passionate about. We can have it all. We can follow our dreams AND we can have a family too. Having one does not mean we cannot have the other. That is empowering. 

Mallika is an empowering female role model too. She is well known for breaking the mould of the typical Bollywood actress. She was the first actress to “properly kiss” on screen and wear a bikini. She is well known for breaking boundaries and I really admire and respect her for that.

Q. What is the lasting impression you want to leave on the audience?

I wanted to leave the audience with this: you can lose the thing that you think is most important to you in life, but in the process you gain something even better. What you learn is more valuable than the thing you lost. I feel Jennifer's journey exemplifies this. 

I also hope that this film introduces people to the real Jennifer Lynch. Not as a woman famous for being the daughter of David Lynch, or for making the infamous Boxing Helena. But, as a filmmaker in her own right and someone who walks boldly to the beat of his/her own drum.

Catch Despite the Gods at this year's Hot Docs festival in Toronto May 5th 2012. Click HERE for details.


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