Because of my interest in new models of DIY film distribution, I’ve been quietly following the story of Nina Paley’s breathtaking and sharply inventive animated feature, Sita Sings the Blues. And although my initial interest in Paley’s movie was driven by Paley’s unusual distribution plan (more on that later), I’ll admit to being blown away by Paley’s inventive storytelling techniques and her creative, richly allusive animation styles.
Sita Sings the Blues, as Roger Ebert observes in his equally enthusiastic review, operates on several levels. First, we get the story of Nina and her boyfriend, Dave, happily in love, their cat Lexi contentedly sleeping on the foot of the bed (at least until it’s time for that 5 AM feeding). Paley mixes intentionally crude animation here with photographic backgrounds that capture bits and pieces of San Francisco, establishing a visual motif that will be repeated throughout the film. Soon after we are introduced to the couple, Dave gets a temporary job in India. Eventually, Nina flies out to visit, and Dave seems aloof, unwilling to show affection in public or, later, in private. Nina goes back to Brooklyn to take some freelance work and is greeted by an email from Dave telling her no to return.
Alongside of Nina’s story, we get another story about Sita and Ramayana. Sita endures a similar rejection after Ramayana suspects that she has been unfaithful. There is a kidnapping and rescue plot told with incredible visual flair and wit. This narrative is mediated by a group of three moden-day Indian storytellers, who joke about Ramayana’s decisions while gently debating when the story took place (“was it the eleventh century?”). But what makes Sita Sings the Blues feel so original was the decsion to have Sita express her emotionsby singing and dancing to recorings of songs by the early 20th century jazz perfromer, Annette Hanshaw (here she is singing “We Just Couldn’t Say God Bye“). Hanshaw’s songs of love (often urequited) and rejection beautifully match Sita’s story, and by extension, Nina’s. Sita herself is a bluesy, sometimes brazen Betty Boop-type figure, even while remaining faithful to her beau, and in a number of scenes, Sita’s 10th century BC India begins to recall the animation styles of the 1930s. When Sita sings, dancing birds and deer, though many of these creatures bear little resemblance to modern day animals, suggesting something far more surreal.
And here is where the innovative distribution strategies have come into play. Because many of Hanshaw’s songs are still under copyright, Paley would have to pay thousands of dollars in fees to “decriminalize” the film (Paley breaks down the numbers in detail here). And because the film depends so completely on the songs, Paley has opted to distribute the film on the web under a Creative Commons license, under the provision that “promotional” copies of movies and DVDs are not subject to the same licensing fees as those that are sold. So, Paley is giving away the film, essentially for free, on the web (I watched it here) and will be seeking to recover her costs through a limited-edition DVD sale, through donations, and through the sales of ancillary materials (t-shirts, etc).
I only have a (very tiny) fraction of the reach that Roger Ebert has, but like him, I’d encourage you to see it, to host screenings (if you host an official screening, Paley will record a personal video greeting), to contact your local PBS station and ask for them to screen it, and to support the film in whatever way you see appropriate. I’m already scheming about how I might be able to teach Sita in the fall. It’s one of the most exciting new films I’ve seen in some time and it deserves to be seen as widely as possible. It’s also a reminder of the limitations that overly restrictive copyright law can impose on creative expression.