Last Wednesday, I talked to “Sita Sings the Blues’ Nina Paley in her current residence in Brooklyn, New York. Affable, funny, down to earth and extremely passionate, Paley discussed everything that has to do with “Sita, from the story itself and the reaction of Indians to the film to her ongoing battle with copyright laws.
Paley has stated before that making the film was very cathartic. I wondered though if she was concerned with laying herself so bare on screen.
“I think I’m used to it, Paley told me. “My art has always been very personal. It’s not like I feel raw and vulnerable every time I watch the film. I was raw and vulnerable when I made the film, but that’s all behind me now. It’s not about me anymore; It’s about the work of art.
Although the vast majority of viewers around the world loved the film, some Indians didn’t accept Paley’s “feminist adaptation of the “Ramayana, claiming that it’s unviable to apply modern standards to an ancient tale about a god like Sita.
“Well, the reason why the film is called “Sita and not the ‘Ramayana’ is because it’s not the ‘Ramayana,’ Paley said, asserting that her film was never meant to be a faithful retelling of the Sanskrit epic. “This is a personal story. It’s not told from a god’s point of view. It’s told from a very human point of view and it doesn’t try to hide that.
The copyright issue
Despite unanimous glowing reviews and the received awards – including Berlin Film Festival’s 2008 Crystal Bear prize – Paley found herself in front of an unexpected deadlock that prevented the release of the film. The basis of Paley’s predicament lies in the copyrights of Hanshaw’s songs. Though the recordings are not covered by federal copyright laws, the compositions themselves are controlled by giant corporations who charges thousands of dollars for the use of the songs.
After months of negotiations, they charged Paley $50,000 for the use of the songs. Still adamant on offering the film for free, Paley – who remains in debt till this very day – borrowed the cash and paid the corporations to decriminalize the film in order to, ironically, make it safe to give the film away for free.
So far, the film had a limited theatrical release in France and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland. It has also been screened in a small number of art-house theatres in the US and has been broadcasted on the PBS network.
Online, it’s a different story. “Sita has been downloaded more than 100,000 times via torrent portals since February.
“It’s still pretty difficult for me to get a theatrical release. Local distributors just don’t know what to do with it, Paley told me. “The film would definitely benefit from these distributors but it’s a new experiment and they seem to be intimated by the whole thing. They’re not sure whether people will go see a film that has been made available free online. The reality is just because people can get it free online doesn’t mean that they still wouldn’t go see the film in theaters. Same thing with music. People can listen to the records of their favorite musicians at home but they still go to see them in concert.
In an age when theatrical release is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire for most indie filmmakers, especially in the US, I asked her if having her film screened on the big screen remains essential for her.
“Actually, it’s still very important, she replied. “I still believe that films were made to be shown on the big screen. I do believe though that the internet complements theatrical screening and not compete with it. The two are totally different experiences.
“The internet is great in democratizing art; making it available for everyone, and that’s why distributors hate it. Film corporations have had a monopoly over every film channel for so long; they own the studios, theater chains, TV stations and even the stores. With the Internet, they suddenly found themselves facing a new invention that, for the first time, they can’t seem to control.
In a previous interview, Paley explained that “the whole struggle with our broken copyright system turned me into a Free Culture activist. 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.
Since then, Paley – whose next project is an illustrated book about free culture – has written extensively about the absurdity of copyright laws and the legitimacy of sharing art.
“Art is not a commodity, Paley wrote last July in QuestionCopyright.org, “Art is made on the initiative of the artist. Otherwise, it s commissioned work, which obviously compensates the worker. But the commissioner is often a corporation or investment group, who will expect a monopolist s return on their investment. So the pro-copyright argument is simply in favor of maintaining the oligarchy whose elites happen to be the main patrons of art in our age.
“The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is the biggest joke, Paley told me. “They’re part of the global initiative to transfer all information into commodities. Although her argument, which I personally believe in, is very viable, the governments of the world don’t seem to share her opinion. Strict “anti-piracy laws, pushed by the US, have been recently put into practice by the likes of the UK, Sweden and France.
“The media controls the US government, Paley said. “They’re extremely powerful and they know how to pressure lawmakers into passing their agendas. People believe that Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) represents filmmakers but they actually don’t. They represent film corporations. Same thing with the music industry. The amount of profit artists receive is very little. Eighty percent receive nothing.”
Any artist receives substantial exposure by offering their art free online. Several musicians have proved that this model could work magic. British rock group Radiohead, for instance, managed to famously top the world charts with a record that was offered free online three months prior to its CD release. I asked her though if she’s ever concerned about the hundreds of people out there who don’t intent either to donate or purchase the film’s merchandise.
“It doesn’t bother me, she said. “Everyone who watches the film gives it an extra value. I see that the simple act of watching the film is a gift. For instance, my original paintings [of the movie] will have no value if no one has seen the film. The more people share the film freely, the more they want to buy film-related stuff.
For my final question, I asked her if a major studio offered to produce her next film under the same conditions she’s been rallying against the past year, would she accept the offer?
“Hmm . that’s a good question, she replied. “There are some studios who have actually been interested in my work. I’m not sure if I’m interested though. It’s difficult for me to see a studio allowing me to do whatever I’m doing right now. I’m not against studios. Some studios are starting to produce good stuff lately. I think in the future, studios could be the right place to work in, but not now.
“Besides, I don’t need millions of dollars; I don’t need excess. Money is not the root of all evil. I used to believe that but now I don’t. I used to feel that by being hired and getting paid, I was compromising, that I was selling a part of myself.
“What I learned throughout making this film is that money can be a gift. The money I received was essentially a gift, and that was fantastic. “
“Sits Sings the Blues is available to download for free at http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html. The 4 GB version comes with a director’s commentary, trailer, an interview with Paley and an animated short. The film is also available for purchase on DVD in Amazon’s online stores. The film’s merchandise is available at http://questioncopyright.com/sita.html.