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Despite the Gods

Sarah Ward

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Penny Vozniak’s behind-the-scenes documentary about Jennifer Lynch's struggle to make her third feature is also a fascinating portrait of a second-generation director.
Despite the Gods
As a child, Jennifer Lynch experienced the extraordinary highs and unenviable lows of the entertainment industry. Watching her father – director David Lynch – react to both extremes, she witnessed the best and worst the cinematic art form had to offer, and observed the irreparable impact upon its practitioners. Decades later, she still recalls the dark days that followed the failure of his third feature, Dune, reportedly rendering him silent for 12 months. Indeed, it is that fate she endeavours to avoid with her own third effort, as chronicled in Penny Vozniak’s behind-the-scenes documentary feature, Despite the Gods.

Of course, Jennifer may be more sensitive to cinema scandals than most, courtesy of the controversy that surrounded her first film. Written when she was 19 and directed when she was 25, Boxing Helena elicited lawsuits and incited accusations from feminist groups, causing her to retreat from the public eye for many years. In candid conversations, she confronts the lingering influence of such ill will as she prepares for her next movie. The positive reviews and festival accolades garnered by her sole offering in the intervening period – crime thriller Surveillance – are a source of pride, buoying her for the forthcoming ordeal.

After honest reflections on her preceding career and hopeful declarations of future success, the events that follow plunge Jennifer, her cast and crew into every filmmaker’s worst nightmare. As if making an empowered horror/fantasy/romance/musical hybrid about a man-eating goddess turned snake turned woman within the Bollywood system wasn’t difficult enough, she is forced to contend with inferior equipment, relaxed work ethics, religious concerns, striking staff and a vast chasm between her own intentions and that of her combative producer.

Accordingly, Despite the Gods unravels as an obvious successor to Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s filmmaking-turned-disaster documentary, Lost in La Mancha, with Vozniak’s making-of offering capturing the chaos encircling Jennifer’s determined efforts. While it can’t quite replicate the absurdity of Fulton and Pepe’s effort, it appropriates its anarchic spirit and industry insights, as forthright interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage (originally designed as promotional material) combine for an open, all-encompassing look at film production.

However, Despite the Gods also offers something more, for it is also a portrait of a struggling second-generation director as much as it is a study of on-set antics. The weight of her father’s legacy is evident in Jennifer Lynch’s actions, as is the need to disprove her critics. Her chats to camera about her upbringing, addictions, single motherhood and quest for love can’t be dismissed as her movie careens off course. Indeed, despite merely scratching the surface of the tumultuous filmmaking process, Despite the Gods proves an endearing, engrossing and entertaining exploration of film frustrations on a personal and professional level.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Despite the Gods
Director: Penny Vozniak
Australia, 2012, 85 min

Sydney Film Festival
www.sff.org.au
June 6 – 17

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine, and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay

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