September 12 2009
By Margy Rochlin | Feb 13th, 2009
Originally posted in New York Times
WHAT do a 3,000-year-old Sanskrit epic, a ’20s-era jazz singer and Indonesian shadow puppets have in common? They’re all part of the eclectic cultural tapestry that is “Sita Sings the Blues,” an 82-minute animated feature that combines autobiography with a retelling of the classic Indian myth the Ramayana, and that required its creator, the syndicated comic-strip artist Nina Paley, to spend three years transforming herself into a one-woman moving-picture studio.
“At some point everything went through my computer,” said Ms. Paley, who is self-taught and whose longest animated film before this — of a dog chasing a ball — clocked in at just over four minutes. Her decision to do it herself may have satisfied her creative urges, but it also put her more than $20,000 in debt. “That’s why not everyone does it,” she said.
It’s hard to imagine how Ms. Paley, 40, could have farmed out the writing, directing, editing, producing and animating of “Sita Sings the Blues.” As engaging as the film is, explaining it is tricky: along with traditional 2-D animation there are cutouts, collages, photographs and scenes with hand-painted watercolors as the backdrop. At certain points Ms. Paley mixes laughs with exposition by having three flat silhouette characters dispute the details of the Ramayana’s tragic saga of the Hindu goddess Sita, who is exiled by her husband, Rama, who fears she has been unfaithful after she is abducted by a demon king.
At other points Ms. Paley weaves in the story of her own collapsing marriage, and the time switches from ancient India to present-day San Francisco and Manhattan, the images hand-drawn and jittery. In between everything else are flash-animation musical numbers featuring Sita in voluptuous Betty Boop-like form — almond-shaped head, saucer eyes and swaying hips — accompanied by the warbling voice of a real-life flapper-era singer named Annette Hanshaw.
For fans of “Sita Sings the Blues” Ms. Paley’s imaginative leaps and blend of styles are part and parcel of the film’s visual and aural originality. “You can actually feel how much time went into it,” said Alison Dickey, a film producer and one of the jurors who nominated Ms. Paley for Film Independent’s Someone to Watch honor, to be announced at the Spirit Awards next Saturday. “We see so many films, and when you come across one like this, you just feel like you’ve stumbled upon a gem.”
In 2002 Ms. Paley followed her husband, an animator, from their home in San Francisco to a town in western India. It was there that she first learned of the tale of the Ramayana. When she reached the part when Sita kills herself to prove her fidelity, she said, she thought, “That’s just messed up and wrong.”
An idea for a postfeminist comic strip began brewing. In it her new ending would still have Rama rejecting Sita, but instead of committing suicide she would become empowered. “She says, ‘To hell with you. I’m going to go join a farming collective.’ ”
Before Ms. Paley could commit her I-will-survive strip to paper, though, life intervened. While she was on a business trip to New York, her husband sent her an e-mail message telling her not to return. In a state of “grief, agony and shock,” she remained in Manhattan, camping out on friends’ sofas.
One of her hosts, a collector of vintage records, played Annette Hanshaw’s shiny rendition of Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk’s bluesy lament “Mean to Me.” “A friend of mine joked, ‘That’s your theme song,’ ” Ms. Paley said. And while “Mean to Me” and Rama’s rejection of Sita made sense together, she didn’t have the money or the emotional energy to envision more than a short film.
That film, “Trial by Fire,” was so successful on the festival circuit that Ms. Paley kept expanding the project, using successive chapters of the Ramayana and Ms. Hanshaw’s songs as Sita’s sung narrative. “It sounds dumb, but the movie wanted to be made,” she said. “There was this music and this story. It was like: ‘Someone’s got to make this movie. I guess it’s going to be me.’ ”
When Ms. Paley recounted this, it was back in November and she was sitting in the dining room of a friend’s house in Oakland. That evening “Sita Sings the Blues” would open the San Francisco International Animation Festival. (It also opened the Museum of Modern Art’s annual series Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You in New York that month and went on to win a Gotham Award.)
After the final credits rolled, the gangly, curly-haired Ms. Paley bounded onstage and announced, “You’ve all just participated in an illegal act.’ ” Though Ms. Hanshaw’s recordings are not protected by federal copyright, those who own the rights to the songs themselves charge tens of thousands of dollars that Ms. Paley does not have to use them — which is also more than independent distributors have offered for a theatrical release.
Because of an exception in the copyright act, public television stations can broadcast music without having to clear individual licenses, and “Sita” will be shown on the New York PBS station WNET on March 7, after which it will be available on the station’s Web site. “My thing,” Ms. Paley said in November, sounding glum, “is that I just want people to see it.”
Recently, though, the licensing fee was negotiated down to approximately $50,000, and “Sita” is close to being sprung from what Ms. Paley calls “copyright jail.” Still, she hopes to release it in a manner as alternative as her film. Using the free software movement — dedicated to spreading information without copyright restrictions — as her model, she has decided to offer “Sita” at no charge online and let the public become her distributor. After all, it’s a movie that even one of the least sympathetic characters — her ex-husband — might endorse.
“He was relieved,” Ms. Paley reported. “He told a friend of mine he thought it was tactfully done.”