Monday, March 9, 2009

"Sita" Tries Very Very Hard to Finally "Sing the Blues"

New York based animator Nina Paley has done something remarkable in her film Sita Sings the Blues. The film is an elegant combination of a few disparate elements: animated dramatizations of the tales contained in the ancient Indian Ramayana, a hilarious retelling of those stories by three Indian shadow puppets, the titular Sita singing old blues standards to her mistreating husband Rama, and the story of Paley's own mistreatment by her husband while he was away in India.

It sounds complex, but the two narratives, as embodied in Paley's true breakup story and in Sita and Rama's story in the Ramayana, are pretty coherently presented throughout the film. The two tales also have a lot of parallels, and Paley deftly uses these various stylistic elements to draw them together in interesting ways. Even the blues song interludes resonate with meaning parallel to the two stories being told. The particular songs Paley chose for her film are all performances by early 20th century jazz singer, Annette Hanshaw, and her voice complements the film exceptionally well.

But there's a problem.

You see, song recordings like Hanshaw's are often, even now, still under their copyrights. Even more troubling is that the rights to a song can be divided between the copyright holder of the recording itself and any number of co-composers. The handful of songs that Paley used in her film for example, it turns out, were under copyrights owned by a long list of different people (you should check out that list... it's kind of daunting). And the amount of money this list of people required Paley to pay in order to use the songs proved prohibitive.

The short version of the contorted copyright fiasco is that Paley couldn't afford to get the required licenses to exhibit the film in theaters. She couldn't afford to release the thing she had worked on for so long solely because the songs she used were tied up in America's absurd copyright system. Her own expansion and reinterpretation of the meaning of these songs was held back by a backward-looking system of giant copyright terms.

Eventually, the critics caught wind of the film and watched their screener copies. The consensus was that the film was at least fun to watch, and at most a masterpiece (here's Ebert's take). The hype ball started rolling, and eventually Paley's plight was public enough that people started demanding to see the film, one way or another.

Paley has responded. Over at, the film is streaming in full. In fact, this site offers this list of places to see and download the movie for free all over the internet. All Paley asks is that people share and respect her art, and maybe even donate. She is concerned about money, of course, but she first and foremost needs this work to finally be seen. In her own words, "I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License."

So I recommend that you go watch the film, but even if you don't, at least think about what this means for the future of entertainment: we all own our culture, and if someone wants you to pay for it, in this increasingly pirated and remixed media world, they need to make it worth your while. Not only does Paley offer one example of a film that would be worth your while, she also shows that it isn't worth the while of ancient copyright holders to imprison the culture of the past; if we want it, it's already ours anyway, and we're going to use it.

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