This documentary records blind bluesman Paul Pena's trip to Tuva (or Tyva) in 1995. He had been invited there by his friend and fellow throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar to compete in the triennial Tuvan national throat singing competition. The first North American to take part in the event, Pena thrilled the Tuvans by singing traditional songs in their language. He won the prize for kargyra style of throat singing, and also the "audience favourite" award.
The film, by brothers Roko and Adrian Belic, was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature-length documentary in 1999, and it's easy to see why. Pena is a perfect ambassador, having taught himself throat singing and the basics of the Tuvan language and approaching the country with interest and respect. He also makes a great and complex protagonist, by turns artistic, personable, nervous, proud, unhappy, and at peace. He is a handicapped creole man who doesn't fit in in America, here a hero, probably for the first time ever.
Ondar, meanwhile, is the consummate host, grinning proudly, if rather maniacally, as he squires Pena and his entourage on gruelling roadtrips around his country ("sight-seeing", laughs Pena, who can't see anything at all). The Tuvan scenery is breath-taking, all stunning snow-capped mountain peaks and burbling clear rivers through lush green fields and forests. Add to this yaks, camels, horses, gorgeous smiling children, aged wrinkled men whose names Pena recognizes from radio broadcasts of throat singing...well, it's quite an exotic scene. And then there's the human drama: One of the company, frail DJ Mario Casetta, has a heart attack and appears for a time close to death. Pena, we discover, is clinically depressed, and when his medication is lost or stolen, he becomes desperate and fears he'll have to cut his trip short. But a visit to a shaman clears up the run of bad luck: Casetta recovers, Pena's medication in renewed, and all is well again. The five-week trip winds to a close, Ondar and Pena seated on a rock in Ondar's hometown, hand in hand, singing Tuvan songs.
The film itself was shot in video, for the Belics were not able to secure the funding they needed to shoot film. Though video is not accepted at the Sundance Film Festival, they entered their movie anyway, checking off 35mm on their application. Pulling in favours from all over, they managed to convert their film, bring Pena and Ondar in for three concerts, and win an audience favourite at the festival. Then the Academy Award nomination. Wonderful that this modest little movie could change the fortunes of Pena, who had been living in poverty and obscurity, as well as make throat singing more known in the west. Highly recommended.