PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Vision and curiosity
The story of San Francisco-based blues singer Paul Pena’s journey to Tuva, a teeny republic in the heart of Asia, is certainly strange and wondrous. Still, given the obscurity of almost every element involved, the story probably wouldn’t strike most people as the ideal material for a first film, since first films generally require financial backing on the front end and some hope of distribution when all’s said and done. Not to mention the many logistical difficulties in making the thing: arranging for a crew willing to work for next to nothing, traveling to and around Tuva (currently part of the Russian federation) by plane, train, bus, and sometimes horses, hauling equipment up and down mountain footpaths, dealing with lack of electricity and of language, confronting bad karma, etc., etc.
But the difficulties didn’t intimidate Adrian Belic and his brother Roko. On learning of Pena’s dream, they were so thrilled by it that they decided to follow and even to coax and expedite it into a reality. While learning the ancient Tuvan art of khoomei (translated as “throatsinging,” and entailing the production of multiple tones simultaneously; it’s been likened to the sound of “a bullfrog swallowing a whistle”), Pena befriended Kongar-ol Ondar, winner of Tuva’s 1992 throatsinging competition, who invited him to come and compete in the 1995 contest. Genghis Blues documents the experience.
When I meet with Adrian Belic, he’s wearing a Mongolian jacket and eating eggs and potatoes at a hotel restaurant in Washington DC, and though he’s in his own journey mode at the moment, flying from film festival to film festival to get the word out about his Oscar-nominated documentary he’s pleased to retell most every detail concerning the Tuvan adventure. And yet, he finds, in traveling with the film, that Tuva and its environs are not so remote as you would think, based on popular Western media’s veritable erasure of the area and its complex politics, arts, and histories. At the most recent screenings of the film, Belic says, he has met students from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and even Tuva; they thank him for bringing them a little piece of home into their current lives.Cynthia Fuchs:
How did you and your brother decide to take on such an unlikely project?Adrian Belic:
My brother and I saw a documentary in high school, sitting on my mother’s bed, watching a black and white tv with the proverbial coat-hanger sticking out of it. It was about this crazy brilliant American physicist, Richard Feynman. It was called The Last Journey of a Genius, a BBC production, shown on Nova, and it described this far off place that Feynman always wanted to go but never did, somewhere north of Mongolia in Southern Siberia, over the Siam Mountains. It described these people and yurts and yaks and shamans and multi-harmonic singing. We were fascinated, and committed ourselves to get there, someday, somehow. So we finished high school, went to college, and with that degree, we were finally free, with the societal stamp of approval on our foreheads. My brother called up the producer Ralph Leighton, the only guy we’d ever heard of who knew anything about it. And he tells us the story of Paul Pena, a blind blues singer, who learns Tuvan one letter at a time, translating from Tuvan to Russian and Russian to English dictionary, and who befriends this Tuvan throatsinger, who invites Paul to Tuva for the second ever Symposium and Championship in 1995. At first, there was a hurdle, because the BBC was contracted to do the documentary, but they pulled out, and Leighton called us and said it was ours. We were stunned.CF:
How did you put the logistics and the money together?AB:
At first, we talked to adults about it and they said, oh, you guys are so lucky. You’ve got African American issues, disabled people, traditional American blues, cross cultural issues, traditional Tuvan music, you guys are young, people will be throwing money at you guys. So we started writing grants, and sent them off, and didn’t receive a nickel. But how can we be pissed? I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw it first. Two, my brother and I had done student films since we were kids, but what the hell does that have to do with it? And three, okay, who’s going to want to see this? No one knows Paul, no one believes Tuva exists, and we’re two yahoos who decided not to go to grad school. We were never very upset, maybe a little depressed. But we got the proverbial credit cards, got our Aeroflot tickets, went to Tuva and shot for five weeks, stayed with Kongar-ol and his friends, came back, found an incredible guy in San Francisco who allowed us to come in on weekends and edit for free. And we settled into this delusion that it would take us five months, maybe eight months to finish, and that turned into a year, then two years, then three years. And finally we sent out some rough cuts, and got into nine film festivals, Hawaii and Vancouver and the Margaret Mead Documentary Festival here in DC, which was very prestigious.
Then we applied to Sundance, and were accepted. That’s when the real trouble began, because we had to come up with fifty grand to transfer [from video to 35 mm]. But we did it, in one month, from basically five individuals. At the festival, we were lucky, we found a PR company that wanted to work with us, as the “renegade, passion project,” and they slipped us into photo sessions for higher profile projects. And we were also very diligent, at Sundance and Rotterdam and Telluride, and again at the Oscars, the postcards in everyone’s mailboxes, trying to do as much preliminary work as possible.CF:
How do you feel about this packaging process, for the “renegade, passion project”?AB:
It’s not a question of like or dislike, it’s necessary. It’s part of the filmmaking business. It’s shame that filmmakers or artists in general don’t realize that. My brother and I have always had businesses, a bicycle business in junior high school, a house painting business in college. And we didn’t call it Belic Brothers House painting, we called it DaVinci Brothers, it just rang better. At the festivals, in our bio it said we grew up in Chicago, so we were known as the Genghis Blues Brothers. So we let it ride, we didn’t care. It’s not so much for my brother and I, because we’re fortunate. But I’m really happy for Paul and Kongar-ol, because their story is so compelling. In some ways, my brother and I are just carrying on the tradition of independent filmmaking and documentary, Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, Crumb, all the great films that took chances and raised the bar higher. And we’ve gotten a very lucky break with Genghis Blues, so we don’t mind talking about it from dusk till dawn. I love when we can screen the film for young people, we let them keep the print, do an extra screening for any school, because we didn’t have that kind of mentoring when we grew up.CF:
It sounds like you’ve given a lot of thought to how documentaries do cultural work. How were you thinking about that, a kind of meta-representation of documentary strategies, in addition to telling this very personal story?AB:
This is our only documentary. My brother and I have always done fiction films, though we were raised on documentaries. And traveling’s always been in our blood: our parents are from Eastern Europe, our mother’s Czech and our father’s Yugoslav, so I went to Europe for the first time when I was about eight days old: the reality of [traveling] was very much a part of us. But our experience in film what we made and what we watched was fiction. And what frustrated us about documentaries is that they told extraordinary stories, but presented them so dryly, and not only that, but also in a dictatorial way. You have some omnipotent narrator who’s not on location, and reads over the images as if what he says is the rule of law: this is what the Masai do, or this is what happens at the elephant races in Southern India. And also, it’s usually a one-camera shoot, single-focused. We were always wondering, who’s behind the camera? How’d they get here? Why’d they do this?
So we approached Genghis Blues with an appreciation for the magic of documentary, which is that it’s real. Paul is alive, someone actually has those thoughts and lives a life like that, and yet, how compellingly told. We tried to tell Genghis Blues like a fictional narrative. It’s not an anthropological study of throatsinging, or a history of Tuva. It’s the story of two incredible human beings, a friendship and a journey, a struggle and a dream. And ultimately, suffering and triumph, both external and internal. I think that good storytelling is twofold: one, it’s good fortune at times; and two, it’s having the vision and openness and curiosity to look at it in a general way.CF:
How did you imagine what you were getting into?AB:
I mean, it was hilarious, when we were writing our grant proposals. People told us to do it, but once we got down to it, what were we writing about? There’s no information on Tuva. There’s no text, no images, no research. So we made up a story and sent it in and didn’t get any money. So we went there to live it. We shot a lot of tape. We didn’t want our perceptions or misperceptions or ignorance to cloud it or shape it. We didn’t know, but we knew that we didn’t know. So we just let her roll, and we came back with ninety hours we shot in Tuva and another fifty in the States of interviews and Paul around town. And we began honing it into a story for those who don’t know anything about it, so they can enjoy it and learn something.CF:
It struck me as I watching, that you could have been tourists, or traditional anthropologists, going in and excavating for “truth” to report. And you avoid that by focusing so intently on Paul and Kongar-ol, but also by including yourselves and the crew, as part of the process, of making and of interpreting what you’re seeing.AB:
That’s part of the adventure. When you bring cameras in, or any foreign element into a situation, it changes it, and to assume that it doesn’t is silly. We didn’t want an anthropologist to tell us about Tuva, or a narrator to intone over the image; we wanted the people who experienced it to speak. And sometimes that’s contradictory: the way Ralph saw Tuva and the way Lemon saw it were kind of different. Lemon saw Tuva as this free place, with no fences, but the people of Tuva see it otherwise, with the problems with Russia and Mongolia. But I like that, because it allows the audience to pick what they wish out of it. It’s not a lesson in Tuva, it’s a lesson in life, and life is choices, your own perceptions.CF:
How did you structure the story, to balance personal and political issues?AB:
Well, for one thing, we knew that the high point of the film is not necessarily Paul winning [the contest], because the focus of the story that we told, was Paul’s journey. So the high point was the end of the journey, how Paul experiences it, and what he thinks of it. So we knew we didn’t want the end of the film to be the win, and people cheer and the credits roll, over a slow motion Paul waving. One, it’s been done before; two, it’s boring; and three, it’s not the way we experienced it. That wasn’t our high point, what the group experienced it as a high point: Paul winning was only one thing that happened along the way. And we also had to make it dramatic, not necessarily true to the chronology, not literal, but organic.CF:
I’m wondering what might have prepared you for being so open to a culture that is so different from what you’d known.AB:
Well, part of it is that, once you meet Paul, you know that magic just happens around him. Even on screen, he moves people. Do you know his situation? Paul’s dying of pancreatic cancer, he was diagnosed right after Sundance last year, and given two months to live. He’s lived to turn 50, but he’s really sick: he couldn’t even come to the Oscars. And people are so moved by him that we’ve actually raised more money for Paul, through a nonprofit fund, than for the film. [Further details are available at www.genghisblues.com.]CF:
His experience also exemplifies the situation of a whole set of generations of blues musicians in the States, who were or are not rewarded for their art, financially or socially. This contrasts so abruptly with the way the Tuvan people at least those we see here revere their traditional artists.AB:
And on a more human level, the reverence they had for Paul, which in America he doesn’t get. One of the most poignant images in the film for me is when Kongar-ol takes Paul to the river and washes his face. Even with all the attention that Paul has received, in the few times that Paul has come out with the film here, no one touches him like that in America.
We’re so lucky to have been along for this part of his life. At screenings, people are surprised sometimes to see that we’re not Tuvan. But I think we’ve done the film with sensitivity and passion, and real awe about what happened, not with an analytical eye, but we’re amazed, and we invite you to come join us on this journey. And it’s not that Roko and I are so great, but for all people who are successful in life, somewhere along the line there’s been a mentor. And definitely my mother’s that person for us, and she’s also told us how fortunate we are to live in America. Whenever we come back from somewhere, she tells us, “You kiss that ground.” I mean, it’s not perfect and you work your ass off, and don’t be a shmuck in that country, but be happy you’re here, for the opportunities that you have.CF:
That must have come to you, working with Paul so closely, observing his more “difficult” position in the United States. One image that struck me, probably because you repeated it, was the cane, hovering over the sidewalk, as the camera tracks it or appears to walk behind it. How were you trying to represent Paul, or your feelings about him?AB:
Metaphorically, very simply, the cane represents Paul’s daily journey. His journey is that arduous, down the block. And then the way the cane is off the ground, during the trip to Tuva, he had no easy referents for where he was, we just hopped him from one Aeroflot to the next. And, blind people are invisible to most sighted people, and the shot from behind the cane, that’s what the cane sees, or senses, like tentacles or a snake’s tongue.CF:
And it’s also an image Paul will never see, so it’s doubly complicated.AB:
Exactly. And then, we also thought that Paul would just come home, to the same life he had left. It’s not like he was offered a contract and became a huge recording star in Tuva. He came home, so we wanted to bracket that journey and return with that image [of the cane]. You never know when you’re going to be fortunate, because when we got home, he gave us that great interview, where we asked, what’s up for you next? And he said, “Well, I don’t know, I just don’t predict the future.” As soon as he said that, we thought, well, you just ended the film for us. And now we have to sit down and carve it out somewhere in between. And he says it in such a way, that it’s not necessarily a downer, but with a glimmer of hope. You don’t predict the future but look what happens when you just engage with it. And for Paul, even though he physically came back to the same place, as a person, he didn’t. He grew and expanded, as it turned out for all of us, too.
Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/belic-adrian/