Sita Sings the Blues

Nina Paley overcame personal trauma, financial adversity, and copyright trouble to get her magnum opus, the amazing animated feature Sita Sings the Blues, in front of an audience. (Film & Video‘s extended interview with Paley, from a time when the film was still languishing, largely unseen, is still available online.) Now that it’s out in the world, there’s a new obstacle to screenings — accusations of blasphemy.

Sita Sings the Blues is a playful reinvention of stories from the Ramayana, setting them in ways that reflect, to some degree, Paley’s personal life at the time. Astonishingly, Paley animated the whole thing, in Flash, out of her New York apartment, setting the stories to performances by jazz singer Annette Hinshaw that inspired Paley’s project in the first place. And that was the first complication — although Paley thought the recordings were old enough that she would be free of copyright entanglements, that wasn’t the case, and she ended up having to tangle with a slew of rightsholders to clear the songs for distribution.

Paley did eventually get the film released, employing a number of unusual strategies to minimize her copyright obligations. For example, because she paid a $50,000 fee to license the music rights, with additional payments due for every 5,000 DVDs sold, the DVD of Sita Sings the Blues is available in a limited run of 4,999. Because Paley is opposed to digital-rights-management systems, the film is not available for streaming via Netflix (though it can be rented from Netflix on DVD). 35mm prints and HDCAM tapes of the film are available for theatrical exhibition, and a ton of digital versions are available for free download — including a 200 GB 1920x1080p QuickTime that surely provides the ultimate Sita Sings experience at home.

Going to all that trouble — and paying those music licensing fees — just to make the film available for free online might seem a little crazy. But in an recent interview, Paley says the film brought in more than $132,000 in its first year of release. That’s not a Harry Potter number, but Paley says it’s a lot more than she would have made in a traditional distribution deal. What’s even better? The film has found its audience.

The irony is, now that the film is available for screening by anyone who cares to procure a copy, Sita has attracted the attention of religious hardliners who object to what they see as a disrespectful approach to Hindu culture and try to keep it from being screened. Aseem Chhabra, one of the voiceover artists who contributed to the film, says a recent scheduled screening of the film in New York was abruptly canceled after an Internet campaign against the film generated more than 1,000 protest emails, and protesters aimed, without success, at getting the San Jose Museum of Art to cancel a scheduled screening this weekend. The variety of grievances against the film are pretty well summarized here.

I’m thrilled that Paley’s film, which really is exceptional, continues to find new audiences, but a little depressed to know that some pundits — many of whom, I’m sure, haven’t actually seen the film — equate it with hate speech. Anyway, Paley herself continues to have plenty to say about these and many other culture and copyright issues at her interesting and entertaining blog.