Andy Warhol observed that film is first and foremost about
personality, which was his rationale for dispensing with editing,
special effects and even plot. "People are fantastic. You can't
take a bad picture," he said in the '60s. Although the
inelegance of much reality-based television calls Warhol's dictum
into question, the new documentary "Genghis Blues" proves
that if you put fantastic people in front of the camera, something
memorable is likely to happen.
The low-tech film, shot on video and
blown up to 35mm, follows Paul Pena, a blues musician from San
Francisco -- he's played with B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie
Raitt and others and wrote the 1970s Steve Miller song "Jet
Airliner" -- on a voyage to Central Asia, where he participates
in a contest celebrating the ancient art of throat-singing. Witnessing
that high point in Pena's otherwise difficult life -- he's blind, in
shaky health and prone to depression -- is one of the film's major
pleasures; another is encountering Pena's exuberant friend and
mentor, the master throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar.
Fiddling with his shortwave radio early one morning in 1984, Pena
stumbled across some strange sounds. What seemed at first like
electronic oscillations turned out to be human voices capable of
producing two or more notes at the same time. "Now that's for me," Pena said to himself. Some notes were high-pitched, twangy
and whistle-like; others had the guttural quality of a bullfrog's droning, which reminded Pena of the blues singer Howlin' Wolf.
It took Pena seven years to ascertain that the sounds he'd heard were created in Tuva, a small Russian republic along the northwestern
border of Mongolia, but within a few weeks of purchasing a Tuvan CD
he was able to reproduce those sounds and had started integrating
them into his music. While Ondar was greeting his fans after a concert in San Francisco during the early 1990s, Pena sidled up to
the master and began vocalizing in the lower-pitched kargyraa style. Ondar was so impressed he invited
Pena to Tuva's 1995 triennial throat-singing competition.
The history of Tuva supplied in the opening section is slightly imprecise. The country was settled centuries ago by Turkic peoples who became allied with Genghis Khan. After spending the 18th
and 19th centuries under Chinese rule, Tuva was absorbed first into
czarist Russia (the documentary doesn't state this) and was technically (though, by some accounts, not actually) independent
before officially joining the Soviet Union in 1944.
Director Roko Belic's college instructors included the indie cinema director Gregg Araki --
Belic plays one of the anarchic, disaffected teens in Araki's "Totally F***ed Up" -- which may explain the film's mild deviations from the documentary norm, such as the use of
impressionistic montages and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the filmmaking process.
For its first half-hour, "Genghis Blues" unfolds more or less like a conventional documentary, as Belic, who
produced and shot the film with his brother, Adrian, introduces Pena
and the engaging eccentrics who either accompany him on his Asian
adventure or help make it happen. Among Pena's supporters are Ralph
Leighton, a founder (with inspiration from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman) of the California-based Friends of Tuva,
and the late Mario Casetta, a wisecracker who for years played world music on KPFK, the Los Angeles affiliate of Pacifica Radio.
Shortly after the group's arrival in Tuva, however, "Genghis
Blues" evolves into an intimate portrait of two sentient
artists. The eminently likable Pena, a Creole American who traces his
familial and musical roots to Cape Verde, is a spirited bundle of
emotions. At various moments he's jolly, petrified, confident and
despondent, though onstage he consistently wows the audience. The
Tuvans call him "Earthquake" because he's from San
Francisco and because he's able to hit notes so low they sound like
the earth trembling. Belic told me recently that he'd been under
pressure from some of the musician's friends not to show Pena's less
self-assured moments -- he admits to despair over his blindness and
becomes frantic after losing his depression medication -- but the
director wisely included them.
That "Genghis Blues" has won
audience-favorite awards at the Sundance, Rotterdam, San Francisco
and Florida film festivals indicates that the revelations have hardly
undermined the documentary's feel-good sensibility. But more
important, they provide a context for Pena's very personal music:
This is a man who sings his life. They also make his triumphs -- he
wins two prizes at the contest -- all the more endearing.
The drama in "Genghis Blues" revolves around Pena's
participation in the contest, but the most poignant sequences occur
when Ondar, who veritably radiates joy -- one interviewee
hyperbolically describes him as being (to Tuvans) JFK, Elvis and
Michael Jordan "all rolled into one" -- takes Pena and his
pals on a tour of Tuva's countryside. Though the documentary doesn't
directly mention it, one paradox about the contest, which grew out of
its founder's zeal to preserve a cultural tradition, is that it
presents throat-singing in a wholly artificial milieu. The Tuvans were
nomadic herders, and some still are; throat-singing, which lone
herdsmen did to relate to the land and to communicate with
compatriots who were sometimes far away -- the sounds apparently
carry very well -- was never intended as performance per se. Tuvan
songs tend to be about rivers, grassland and other aspects of nature,
and it's only after the camera traces the areas that inspire the
music that the connection between form and content is fully made.
The on-the-road footage also underscores the Tuvans' embrace of
life despite poverty and other challenges -- which in turn shows how
deeply intuitive Pena was in incorporating throat-singing into blues
At one point, Pena stands where the Dalai Lama had stood a few years
earlier -- many Tuvans are Tibetan Buddhists -- and rues his
inability to express the timelessness he's sensing about the place.
"I don't know if you can get such a thing on
camera," he says as it focuses on a nondescript monument.
That the Belics left in this acknowledgment of their documentary's
limitations reflects the overall integrity of their endeavor.
Watching "Genghis Blues," I sometimes got the feeling
there was more to the story. But Pena and Ondar are highly
compelling, and the film captures the combination of sensitivity
and serendipity that underlies artistic expression.