Published Mar 01, 2000There are great documentaries that transcend their subject matter, that arouse your interest in mundane or unfamiliar subjects. Then there's Genghis Blues, which overcomes its numerous and obvious flaws as a documentary because of its subject matter, which centres on blind American blues musician Paul Pena, and his interest in Tuvan throat singing. The Republic of Tuva, between Siberia and Mongolia, was literally lost in 1945 when it disappeared from maps and became part of Russia. Yet the country's unique musical legacy has insistently made itself felt, in the form of throat singing, where two notes, a drone and a melody, can be sung simultaneously, sort of like a bagpipe. Paul Pena has long been interested in Tuvan throat singing, and through a Friends of Tuva foundation, made a pilgrimage there that Genghis Blues documents.
The subtitle of the film, which describes Pena's "triumphant journey," is the key to the film's failure. It seems the filmmakers have little interest in what actually happens on their trek, but merely in documenting what they would like to happen like they always assumed the journey would be "triumphant," and so they ignore or downplay the challenges of both getting to, and staying in Tuva. While the film is revealing of the Tuvan singing tradition, it demonstrates very little interest or understanding of the country. The film's final minutes jarringly change gears into a series of mishaps that quite dismissively are attributed to potential "spiritual unrest." These include Pena's bout with depression, and a near death experience by another travelling companion, both of which are glossed over for the sake of the "triumphant journey." It's too bad that the filmmakers weren't more open to what happened, not what they wanted to happen they might have made a great, fascinating film, instead of just touching on a fascinating culture.