`Genghis Blues' finds an unexpected harmony

February 04, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

By happy coincidence, the Charles Theatre is playing host to the two most popular documentaries at Sundance last year, "Genghis Blues," which won the audience award in the documentary category, and "American Movie," which won the festival's grand jury prize for best documentary.

While "Genghis Blues" is not as gracefully filmed or edited as "American Movie," it pays homage to the same indefatigable human spirit that makes creation -- and astonishment -- possible.

First-time filmmakers Roko and Adrian Belic found a truly extraordinary story to tell in Paul Pena, a blind blues singer living in San Francisco who 15 years ago heard, on his short-wave radio, a captivating style of music called throatsinging. It was coming from Tuva, a tiny country on the Mongolian border in which this style of music -- wherein a single singer creates multiple harmonies -- was invented.

Instantly seduced, Pena set out to teach himself throatsinging and even learned Tuvan.

Eventually, he crossed paths with Ralph Leighton, who with the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman had traveled to Tuva on a lark. Leighton, through the auspices of his organization Friends of Tuva, took it upon himself to send Pena to the triennial national throatsinging competition in Tuva.

If all of that isn't astonishing enough, just wait. The Belic brothers, filming in crude video, not only succeeded in capturing some of the warmest moments of Pena's journey -- especially his budding friendship with throatsinging legend Kongar-ol Ondar -- but they also recorded some daunting tribulations. Pena emerges as a man of remarkable native talent and courage, but also as a man given to bouts of self-pity and crippling doubt.

What "Genghis Blues" lacks in production values it more than makes up for in its core material: This is a fascinating journey to a place few of us can ever visit, and a portrait of human nature at its most fearless, awe-inspiring and complicated.

`Genghis Blues'

Directed by Roko and Adrian Belic

Rating: This film is not rated.

Running time: 88 minutes

Released by Roxie Releasing

Sun score: ***1/2

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