Lisa Schwarzbaum
July 23, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Genghis Blues

type
Movie
Current Status
In Season
mpaa
Unrated
runtime
90 minutes
Limited Release Date
12/31/99
performer
Paul Pena
director
Roko Belic
genre
Documentary

We gave it a B+

The extraordinary music known as throat singing, in which one trained throat produces tones approximating a bullfrog and a whistling teakettle simultaneously, is an art usually practiced in Tuva, near Siberia. It’s also the specialty of Paul Pena, a blind, black Creole-American bluesman living in San Francisco who proceeded to charm all of Tuva when he entered the tiny republic’s triennial throat-singing contest in 1995.

Documenting Pena’s remarkable trip and his friendship with Tuvan superstar Kongar-ol Ondar, Roko and Adrian Belic have struck nonfiction gold with Genghis Blues. But the novice filmmakers are also sensitive enough to know that measured National Geographic-style exoticism can take a movie only so far; the more moving story lies in the relationship between a proud Tuvan son of the mountain plains and an American city dweller whose appearance of amiable openness masks clinical depression and failing health. The Belics’ respect for Pena and Ondar, their clear love for cultural mix-’em-up, and their exuberance at being part of such a believe-it-or-not journey carries this appealing documentary past any narrative bumps as surely as Ondar leads his friend over the Tuvan steppes. B+

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