The film opens with a message worth quoting in full: “Sita Sings the Blues is an audience-funded project released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license, except for certain songs under restrictive licenses required by the respective copyright holders.” Next begin the production credits: “Your Name Here presents ... in association with Your Money ... a Funded by You production.”
Sita Sings the Blues is compelling as much for how it was made as it is for its content. Writer-director-producer-editor-animator-production designer — a moment to catch my breath — Nina Paley, an independent filmmaker working out of New York, has in her struggle to secure licensing for her film become an outspoken advocate for free-culture.
Paley was influenced by, among other things, the songs of Annette Hanshaw, a popular jazz singer of the 1920s and 1930s whose work is featured on the soundtrack. According to Paley, the copyrights for Hanshaw’s recordings expired sometime in the 1980s everywhere but in New York State — the details of state-versus-federal copyright restrictions are so convoluted even Paley is baffled by them — but the songs themselves are controlled by corporations who demand tens of thousands of dollars for their use - tens of thousands of dollars per song! What corporations own these compositions? How did she eventually talk them down to the more “reasonable” lump sum of fifty thousand? What strings are attached? Paley doesn’t say; she is bound by confidentiality agreements. What is gained by making filmmakers go through hoops and pay through the nose to legally obtain these songs, which are nearly a century old? I don’t know. Paley doesn’t know. Who in the world does?
Such licensing issues are familiar to, if not readily comprehended by, anyone who habitually listens to the DVD audio commentaries for independent films, where the familiar refrain is, “I wanted to use so-and-so song but couldn’t afford it,” or “Thank you so-and-so recording artist for letting us use your music for free.” This is a negligible concern for the big-budget projects of large studios; Transformers could buy up the entire heavy-metal catalog and it would be a drop in the bucket. But if Paley had paid the original asking price for the Hanshaw songs — the songs, mind you, as the recordings of them were fair game — it would have cost more than her film’s entire production budget.
Paley discusses the ordeal in an extended interview on the DVD (recently made available in the US) and in the audio commentary, but halfway through some of her tortuous answers she forgets the question. I don’t blame her. She obtained the Creative Commons license and has distributed the film for free on the internet. It is available to be streamed at Paley's website, and it is yours to do with as you wish. As for the finer legal points, she may yet have to sort them out. She explains on the website, “they could totally sue me.”
All this talk of licenses, but what of the film? It’s enchanting. Inspired by the Ramayana, the classical Hindu epic poem by Valmiki, it tells the story of Rama, a king, and his wife Sita, whom he cruelly mistreats. Their scenes are intercut with an autobiographical story about Nina (who voices herself) and her husband, Dave, who announces the end of their marriage in a most unceremonious way; I believed this detail must have been invented, but no, it really happened; it is unsurprising then that Paley had to reach all the way back to ancient India to find her equal in brusque dismissal.
It’s fitting that this film is poised on the front lines of the free-culture debate. It’s a pan-cultural fantasia that incorporates multiple forms of animation — hand-drawn, collage, flash, and rotoscoping — for a story that blends Eastern iconography with Western feminist irony. Paley’s ancient Indian heroine sings with the voice of the American Jazz Age, while traditional shadow puppets narrate the action with modern skepticism. The film, in its very content, represents the freedom of culture, drawing from its disparate but somehow cohesive elements to explore a theme that reaches out across the centuries with a common ache: the loss of love.
But how funny it is! The animation is full of whimsy, from the exaggerated rendering of Sita’s buxom body to a graphic battle that succeeds as sublime, grisly slapstick. The biggest laughs come from the dialogue of the shadow puppets, improvised by the actors (Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya); their irreverent conversations challenge outmoded values and revel in the questioning of absurd details, like how the king Ravana plays the veena with his intestines.
It’s too irreverent for some. Paley has been criticized by some traditionalists who take offense to her interpretation of the canonical Hindu text. She is fortunate that the Ramayana, unlike the Hanshaw songs, are part of the public domain.
Paley hopes that giving the film away for free will bring her more exposure and greater commercial success. So far it seems to be working. I rented it through a subscription DVD service and am proud of whatever contribution that has made to her cause. Now here I am, recommending it to you. See it. Share it. Discuss it. I’ll give the last word to Paley: “I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you ... From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.”