Sita by the wall, with a demon

Update Nov. 2010: Check out my new comic strip Mimi & Eunice!


(Journalists: feel free to quote any of these answers verbatim!)

Personal stuff:

Q: What drove you to create "Sita Sings the Blues"?

A: Sita Sings the Blues is a musical, animated personal interpretation of the Indian epic the Ramayana. The aspect of the story that I focus on is the relationship between Sita and Rama, who are gods incarnated as human beings, and even they can't make their marriage work.

And then there's my story. I'm just an ordinary human, who also can't make her marriage work. And the way that it fails is uncannily similar to the way Rama and Sita's [relationship fails]. Inexplicable yet so familiar. And the question that I asked and the question people still ask is, "Why"? Why did Rama reject Sita? Why did my husband reject me? We don't know why, and we didn't know 3,000 years ago. I like that there's really no way to answer the question, that you have to accept that this is something that happens to a lot of humans. (source)

Q: Why make a feature movie out of the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana?

A: I was moved by the story and it seemed to speak so much to my life at the time, my problems at the time. It was cathartic to retell the story. (source)

It was a very personal project from the beginning. Including the autobiographical bits emphasizes that. I didn’t set out to tell THE Ramayana, only MY Ramayana. I wanted to be very clear about my point of view, my biases. (source)

Q: Has your Rama, your ex-husband Dave, seen the movie? How does he feel about his broken marriage being displayed on the ‘big screen’ like that?

A: He saw an almost-finished work-in-progress. I think he understands it’s my side of the story, from my point of view, about my feelings. I didn’t aim to speak for him, only for me. After viewing it he told a friend of mine he was “relieved.” I tried to focus on myself and my feelings; I still don’t understand why either of us behaved the way we did in real life, and I don’t think he knows either. I like the ambiguity of the Ramayana for that reason. It doesn’t explain why the characters behave as they do; only that they do. (source)

Q: How did you discover Annette Hanshaw's music?

A: I heard her voice for the first time while "sofa surfing" after my break-up. I was staying in the home of a record collector in New York. He had original Hanshaw 78's on his shelf, a friend played 'Mean to Me,' and I was hooked. Her voice is so sweet and vulnerable and without bitterness, even as she sings of heartbreak and man-done-her-wrong. Also it comes from a completely different era, separate from both today and ancient India. Those old songs really show how the story of heartbreak in the Ramayana transcends time and culture.

Q: You voiced the role of yourself, and that leads to the film's most excruciating scene, in which your character asks your husband to take you back. Why did you include this scene?

A: I wanted people to feel my pain. And believe me, that's just a little taste of it. When this sort of thing happens to you, it's so shameful, so humiliating. Which is why I included that scene of Sita sitting there on the banks of the river saying, "I must have committed a terrible sin in a previous life to deserve such suffering." There's always a sense that, if something bad happens to you, that there's something really wrong with you. And I love that even Sita believes this, because she's completely stainless, that's the whole point of her character. I feel that airing this stuff out is the way to take the shame out of it. Plus, pain is funny! (source)

Making the film allowed me to get in touch with my inner Sita. I didn’t know why I was feeling the way I was feeling, wanting this man who rejected me. A normal, self assured woman, I related so much to Sita and the Ramayana, and I felt the pain of the failed relationship could consume me if I wasn’t careful. Basically the pain was going to burn me. For me that’s a metaphor of pain. It can either burn you or it can fuel something. (source)

Q: You are a self-taught animator. How did you manage to learn all these techniques?

A: When I was 12 or 13, I borrowed a next-door neighbor’s Super 8 camera. I got a book called The Animation Book, by Kit Laybourne, and I read the book and I used the camera. So I had a little bit of experience, but I abandoned it when I was 14. And I didn’t touch animation again until I was 30 — 10 years ago. I picked up where I left off, with a Super 8 camera and clay and a stop-motion film called "Luv Is

And then I started dating an animator — who is actually now my ex-husband — and he had an animation table with animation paper. I had never used an animation table before — it’s amazing how much all this stuff has changed in the last 10 years. At work, he had access to a video line tester, so I did another little short film that way. In San Francisco, this band called Nik Phelps and the Sprocket Ensemble would do monthly performances of live music to animation. I did a Super 8 thing, Nik composed a score to it, and they were showing it. The next thing you know, I’m in this local indie-film world in San Francisco. They knew projectionists, so I met a projectionist who helped me find 35mm junk stock, and then I did scratching and drawing on 35mm junk stock. I bought a 16mm camera and shot my next clay film on 16. It just kept going.

The film itself:

Q: Techies want to know: is it true that this whole move was rendered on your home computer? What software did you use?

A: I started on a G4 titanium laptop in 2002. I moved to a dual 1.8-GHz tower in 2005, moved again to a 2-by-3-GHz Intel tower December 2007, with which I did the final 1920 x 1080 rendering. “Sita” was animated primarily in Flash. I made some original watercolor paintings by hand, which I scanned and animated in After Effects. Reena Shah did the speaking voice of Sita and she also danced. I videotaped her and traced elements of the dance in Flash. That wasn't an automatic program, it was all by hand. (source)

I edited everything in Final Cut Pro, so everything became a QuickTime movie. (source)

Q: Why the choice to put Annette Hanshaw’s voice into Sita’s mouth?

A: It didn’t feel like a choice: it was the inspiration for the whole thing. I was going through my break-up, I was reading all these different versions of the Ramayana and I heard Annette Hanshaw’s songs for the first time. They just went to the same place, they spoke to the same part of me. I realized that they were telling the same story--that life is difficult and filled with love and heartbreak. (source)

Q: Why did you mix animation styles (the smooth cartoony style for the Hanshaw numbers, the shadow puppets with collage characters in the background, during the unscripted dialog, the fake miniature Mughal paintings, during the scripted dialog, the expressionistic rotoscoped scene just after the "intermission")

A: Fear of boredom, mostly. But also to hint at what a wealth of visual traditions are associated with the Ramayana. I barely scratched the surface. (source)

Q: The narration of the shadow puppets—how much of that was scripted?

A: None - it was completely unscripted, 100% real.

Here’s how I got them all in the studio: I met Manish Acharya (Loins of Punjab Presents) through Manish Vij…I guess Manish V told Manish A to check out Sita, and then Manish A asked me to do animation for a Loins music video, and part of the payment was he’d let me record an interview.

Aseem Chhabra had written about me and Sita and I bumped into him at the Loins of Punjab screening. I asked if he’d lend his voice to an interview and he said yes. He actually met Manish the day of the recording - he interviewed him that morning for an article. They sound like best friends who have known each other forever, and they’re great friends now, but they’d just met that morning.

Bhavana Nagaulapally I met at a play reading of Anuvab Pal… Apparently, I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was the only white woman in the audience, and she asked, “are you Nina Paley?” She had a great voice, and I asked if she’d consent to the interview too. I didn’t know if she would - luckily she showed up, and was awesome, and the rest is history. (source)

They're all from different regions of India and speak different mother tongues, and grew up on different versions of the story. So naturally they remember "the" Ramayana differently from one another. There is no one Ramayana. Their discussion makes this clear. (source)

Q: Why is there an “Intermission”?

A: I had been renting old American musicals while working on “Sita” and sure enough here in the middle of the film comes the word intermission. It is also an homage to Bollywood. (source)


Q: How has the film been received among Hindus in India and elsewhere?

A: Some criticize the film as too irreverent, and find the way Sita is portrayed offensive, with her narrow waist and big hips. It is inappropriate to others just because the film is a cartoon. Others feel that the film focuses too much on Sita rather then Rama. In the Ramayana, Sita is only a footnote in the story, but obviously my film is about Sita and her suffering. (source)

There has been plenty of feedback. Much less negative than positive, but the negative things are more notable. And I get it both from the far right and the far left. The far right -- they say that they're Hindus but I think it's not right to call them Hindus. They think nonviolence is bullshit: "Don't think you can walk all over Hindus, we'll violate your ass." They send me things letting me know that.

On the far left, there are some very, very privileged people in academia who have reduced all the wondrous complexities of racial relations into, "White people are racist, and non-white people are all victims of white racism." Without actually looking at the work, they've decided that any white person doing a project like this is by definition racist, and it's an example of more neocolonialism. So politics makes strange bedfellows -- they're in bed with the Hindutva nationalists. (source)


Q: How have your thoughts evolved since you first started putting clips from the film online five years ago? You often got slammed by angry responses to the clips. How do you think that has shaped your thinking and the film?

A: It sure gave me a lot to think about during the production. It honed my philosophy. I wrote a bit about it as I went along, like this.

I learned more about Indian politics. At first I took every bait that came my way, but once my blog was overwhelmed by Hindutvadi trolls, I learned to ignore them. I also engaged in some thoughtful dialogs with critics, back when I had time. We never changed each others’ minds, but got better at articulating our points of view. All the online reaction continues to teach me about detachment. I can get just as attached to praise as to criticism; it’s up to me whether I’ll let it dominate my life. (source)

Q: What is your philosophy regarding your responsibility as an artist?

A: Some critics have said that making my movie "as a white, American woman" I have a "responsibility" to locate the work within a history of colonialist oppression account for my white privilege bla bla bla zzzzz. Yes, it's White Man's Burden all over again. So I'd like to get clear on what an artist's responsibility is:

An artist's responsibility is to be true to her/his own vision.

In other words, to be honest. That's it.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, similarly well-intentioned guardians of culture are also trying to dictate Indian artists' responsibility. I recently received a very nice email from an artist studying in Mumbai, who wrote

There is a great deal of emphasis here of being true to our Indian roots and integrating that Indian-ness into our work here. Honestly I'm a little tired of it.

I saw the same thing when I taught animation in Nairobi. UNESCO, who sponsored the program, wanted the participants to create animation that was "authentically African." My feeling was that anything they made would be authentically African, because they were authentic Africans. But UNESCO wanted their work to "look African", be based on traditional folklore, set in rural villages, etc. All this in 2004, in a big city, working on computers - many of the participants were understandably looking away from rural villages and towards the rest of the world. That's what artists do, and it's just as authentic as looking at your roots.

It's great when an artist's vision dovetails with an honorable social cause, and is naturally politically correct. I'm as eager to see homegrown Indian animation about Indian history and folklore as anyone. I'm also eager to see Indian, African, rest-of-the-world-ian animation about every other conceiveable subject - as long as it's honest. My Mumbai penpal articulated it well:

I share your opinion about the integration of identity in our work through honesty of thought. It also ensures the fact that the end result is truer to the context than the other more contrived one.


Copyright & distribution:

Q: If copyright is such a hassle, why don't you just replace all those old Annette Hanshaw songs?

A: my answer here

Q: How much were the copyright holders initially asking to clear the compositions?

A: What they initially quoted me was an average of $20,000 per song. There are 11 songs in the movie, so it would require $220,000, which was more than it cost to make the film.

Since then, they have very generously, from their point of view, brought it down to a mere $50,000, but there are all these strings attached, so I'm not able to fully clear the songs.

The problem is that because I'm giving it away for free, they might say say, "Oh, you sold those, you just sold them for zero dollars." Whereas I would say they are promotional copies, and only a lawsuit would tell. So, it's in their hands; they could totally sue me. (source)

Q: Can't you negotiate a special deal, since this is so small-scale compared to a distributed release?

A: There was no way to negotiate their contract, because it would have cost them more to negotiate than they would have gotten from me. The contract is $3,500 per song, and it would have cost them more than $3,500 for their lawyers to revisit the contract and modify it.

I must emphasize this is a system problem. This is not an individual's problem. Everyone involved in this is truly just doing their job. It's the system itself that is broken. If you can't negotiate the contracts because it costs more money to negotiate a reasonable deal than they could earn, it is crazy.

I borrowed $50,000 to decriminalize the film, just to make it a little bit safer to give the film away for free, which is crazy. (source)

Q: Why would corporations hang onto all these old copyrights if they are going to make it so hard to use them?

A: Well, there's a good answer to that. The corporations that hold these copyrights are media companies that also control most of the new media that comes out. Estimates vary, but it's said that 98 percent of all culture is unavailable right now because of copyrights. So the reason they hold the copyrights isn't because they want to get paid, it's because they don't want all the old stuff competing with the media stream that they control now.

If you control Britney Spears, people are only going to listen to Britney Spears if they can't listen to anything else. That's why I think the system is still in place.

There's so much old good music that people would be listening to now. But if people listened to it, what would they do with the new stuff? If culture were freer, it would compete with people's time in consuming new stuff. That's my theory, anyway.

I don't think any of this is conscious, or that it's a conspiracy theory. All these rules were developed before we had the internet. The times are just changing so fast, business law isn't coping very well. (source)

Q: "We'd like to purchase exclusive television rights for your film..."

A: "Sita Sings the Blues" is released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license, which means there are no exclusive rights to be granted. You are already free to broadcast "Sita" — everyone has that right.

However, I can offer my assistance and endorsement if you share money with me. I'm also available for extras like video greetings, interviews, sending you HDcam tapes, etc. It's my endorsement and assistance that would be negotiated in a contract, not the rights to "Sita", which you (and the rest of the world) already have.

Q: "I'd like to hold an endorsed screening. How do I do that?"

A: If you hold a screening where you sell tickets or collect donations, and you share some of that money with me, then you can officially label your screening an "endorsed screening" and you can use the Creator Endorsed mark to show that to audiences.

What percentage do you have to share? Let your conscience be your guide. In the case of ticket sales, a typical figure is 50% of profits (although of course you are welcome to send more). If you're collecting donations, then it depends on what you're telling the audience the donations are for — if the audience thinks they're donating to me, then obviously you'd have to send all the donations (after expenses) to me. On the other hand, it might be that you collect donations at every screening to support your film series, but on the night you screen Sita Sings the Blues you announce that you're sharing some of the donations with me because you also want to support the artist. In that case, send me whatever percentage you feel is fair; again, 50% is a good guide.

To actually send me the money, just use any of the regular donation methods. When you send it, please tell me how large the audience was, what the total collection was, and any other information you think might be interesting. That will help me keep these guidelines up to date.

When you hold an endorsed screening, there's a video you can show of me thanking the audience and explaining how an endorsed screening works. (I'll also tell them where they can buy DVDs!) If you'd like to use that video, see here.

Sometimes theaters have asked me to make a customized video greeting for their screening. I generally don't do that anymore, because it takes a lot of time. However, if you're holding a very big screening and sharing a lot of the revenue with me, or you'd like to simply pay for the custom video greeting outright, we might be able to arrange it. Please contact me to discuss.

For more information about holding screenings in general, please see the Screening Organizer's FAQ.

Q: Knowing there were problems, why did you go ahead with the movie anyway?

A: I didn’t actually realize the compositions underlying the songs would be the problem. But even if I had, I would done it anyway, because the alternative would have been to not make the movie — and that would have been wrong. The fact is that I’m not rich and there’s no way I could have gotten the amount of money these people want. I don’t think it’s right to kill a good idea over that.

It would have basically just functioned as censorship. The only thing that would have happened is that I would never have made the movie. That would have been horrible. There’s actually a lot of art that’s never been made because people are so scared about this stuff. As I was making this movie I thought, if I end up just giving this away for free, thats’ o.k. because I need to make this movie. (source)

Q: Why did you decide to release “Sita” on-line?

A: The whole struggle with our broken copyright system turned me into a Free Culture activist. I’m actually going to release all my old “Nina’s Adventures” and “Fluff” comics under a Share Alike (copyleft) license too. I saw what happened to Annette Hanshaw’s beautiful recordings: they got locked up so no one could hear them. I didn’t want that to happen to my film. My first concern is Art, and Art has no life if people can’t share it.

This is actually a very big subject. I’ve written a lot about it on my blog, including: Your Children are Not Your Children, Sita’s Distribution Plan, The Nina’s Adventure in Copyleft Project, Watch Me Go On and On and On About Copyright, Fairies are Forever, Copyright Was Designed By Distributors, Lessons Wrong and Right, and Free Culture. (source)

Q: How did “Sita” wind up on Reel 13?

A: Richard Siegmeister tells all here

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