Genghis Blues is more than a simple documentary about a musician's trip to Asia.
Thursday, October 26, 2000
An InvitationWhen I was a kid, my grandfather and I used to go fishing aboard his Boston Whaler, a small boat that was barely a match for the sea. Sometimes we''d catch bucketloads of fish, other times none at all. But one thing I could always count on--he''d tell stories, and I''d listen.
I''ve come to appreciate good storytelling. And documentary films are a powerful way to do just that. Documentary filmmakers get close up to important issues of the day to tell us their stories. I''ve been attending a documentary film festival in Colorado for several years, and year after year, I''m amazed at how much inspiration and information can be packed into a few hours of viewing.
I have wanted to present such a film festival locally for years. Now, thanks to the United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF) at Stanford University, we''ve been able to create an exciting event featuring 15 films and videos, plus a couple of speakers, to focus on world cultures and human rights.
The local chapter of UNA and the Weekly have joined together with CSUMB''s Institute for Teledramatic Arts & Technology to present a number of films from UNAFF, in what will be its first traveling show. Our program will be held at CSUMB''s impressive World Theater
I believe you''ll find the films and videos thought-provoking, entertaining, and well worth your time. We guarantee you''ll discover some first-rate storytelling among our diverse collection of films. Hope to see you there.
--Bradley Zeve, Publisher
On the surface, Genghis Blues is simple. It''s a documentary that tells the story of a blind musician who stumbles upon--and masters--Tuvan throat singing, overcomes various obstacles, and journeys to Tuva, where he wins the national singing competition. It has the classic simplicity of a myth. Joseph Campbell would have loved this movie.
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes the pattern of the heroic myth--how the hero receives a mystical call to action that he seldom understands, takes an action which often amounts to a poorly understood promise to act, finds allies, receives supernatural aid, journeys into a land of magic, faces and defeats his opponent, and returns home changed. Genghis Blues could be the blueprint for a modern myth.
Genghis recounts the story of Paul Pena, a blind San Francisco blues musician who was probably best known for writing "Jet Airliner," the song made famous by the Steve Miller Band on the album Body of Dreams.
After Pena''s wife died in the early ''80s, he received his call to action when he began listening to short-wave radio because of the language programs he found there. One night he heard a broadcast from Radio Moscow that featured a style of singing that blew his mind, one he had never heard before. As he later found out, the music was Tuvan throat singing, a style of vocalizing in which the singer is able to produce two or more notes at the same time. Pena haunted SF music stores until he found someone who knew about throat singing. After getting his hands on a couple of albums, Pena proceeded to study the music on his own and was able to teach himself the deep-throated style of throat singing known as kargyraa.
Curiously, at about the same time but unknown to Pena, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton formed a small organization called Friends of Tuva. The small country, wedged between Mongolia and Siberia, had enjoyed a brief period of autonomy starting in the 1920s and ending when it was annexed by the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Feynman and Leighton''s interest in the little-known country was, in part, sparked by Feynman''s remembrance of a postage stamp from Tuva he had collected as a youth. The pair began a correspondence with leaders of the country, managed to bring three Tuvans to Pasadena to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade, and made plans to visit Tuva. Feynman died in 1988 before ever making the trip, but the organization lived on.
The separate paths of Pena and the Friends of Tuva merged in 1993 when the Friends organization brought Tuvan singer Kongar-ol Ondar to the Bay Area. Ondar, a gregarious performer, was mingling with the overflow crowd at the Asian Art Museum when Pena spontaneously broke into a traditional Tuvan folk song. It was a song that begat an immediate friendship between the two men, and Ondar invited Pena to visit Tuva to compete in the national throat singing competition in 1995. Pena''s seemingly supernatural help had arrived.
Pena found further allies through the Friends of Tuva, who thought sending a blind musician to compete in a Tuvan singing competition was a project just crazy enough to finance. Documentary filmmakers Roko and Adrian Belic were signed up to go along, as were tree-trimmer/musician/sound man Lemon DeGeorge, ex-Beatnik/KPFK world-music DJ Mario Casetta and Tony DeCicco, a musician who would serve as Pena''s assistant.
At this point, with the background in place, the film takes on a sense of immediacy. Once in Tuva, with Ondar as mentor and tutor, Pena and crew are surrounded by people who are fascinated by Pena--and whose faces radiate respect for a man who has taken the time to learn their music, their culture and even some of their language. Pena positively glows in the light of this adulation, a marked contrast from the scenes shot in San Francisco, where he is simply a blind musician who is unable to go anywhere but the corner store without help. The documentary speaks volumes about cultural values and how Americans can so easily ignore and discard a person who, in another place, commands respect.
As the film rolls on, we discover just how much respect Pena deserves. Despite his credentials as a musician--he''s played with B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and T-Bone Walker--Pena''s petrified to take the stage in the competition. His anxiety is intensified when, five minutes before he''s due to go on, he learns that the song he''s been practicing to sing in honor of the Tuvan people was written by a man who had been incarcerated. By singing the song, Pena would, in fact, be insulting his audience rather than honoring them. We watch as Pena melts down, rocking back and forth, his face in hands, wondering aloud what he''s going to do.
But, despite the untimely disruption of his plan, Pena does go on stage, his choice in how to handle the moment seemingly guided by providence. And his ultimate conquest in the contest is less a victory over the other singers than it is a triumph over his own self-doubt.
Although the contest scene may be the narrative climax of the movie, the drama is far from over. Almost immediately following the victory, members of Pena''s crew are threatened or struck down by various perils that threaten to ruin the success of the expedition.
It is, perhaps, in the days following the competition that we come to see what makes Pena and his story so special; in many ways, this time is more revealing than the days building up to the contest. As Ondar takes Pena on a tour to small villages to meet family members and visit places special to him, we see a light kindled in Pena as he revels in the simple things that connect the Tuvan people to the land. Although he''s blind, Pena is seeing the world through Ondar''s eyes.
Perhaps the true climax of the movie is a scene in which Ondar takes Pena to the Chadaana River, splashes his head and chest, and bids him to drink the cold water. Before the pair leave the river, Ondar sings a song for Pena, celebrating the beauty of the countryside. As Pena joins in the song, one cannot help but see a parallel between that moment and a Christian baptism. But this is a baptism that serves to integrate Pena into this world rather than wash him clean of it.
And it''s in this moment that Pena''s heroic journey begins to wind down.
There is nothing particularly spectacular about the filmmaking style of Genghis Blues and that, perhaps, is what makes the film so special. Although there is limited use of archival photos and footage about Tuva as well as brief interviews with people from outside the expedition, the Belic brothers stay focused on the journey by Pena and his crew. In this, their first feature-length documentary, the Belics made a wise choice in trusting the strength of the story to carry the film. In 1999, the film was honored with 14 awards from film festivals around the world and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary.
But even in the midst of the film''s glory, a note of sadness undercut its accomplishments. Last year Pena was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and continues to fight the disease.
Genghis Blues screens during Session Three, Saturday Night.