Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sita Sings

I first head of Sita Sings the Blues back in 2006 when boingboing started following the film's development. I said to myself I would love the chance to tell that story. It was no small joy when the owner of the local art theater announced she would be showing it, and gave me the excuse to contact Paley.

For anyone planning to attend a screening of "Sita Sings the Blues" at Salem Cinema this month, here's a hot tip straight from writer/animator/director Nina Paley:

Sit as close as you can to the left rear speaker.

"During the intermission scene the audio track plays four different conversations, each from a different speaker," Paley said. The left rear is her personal favorite, though for Hindi speakers, she recommends the front right.

The film portrays parts of the Indian epic the Ramayana through the eyes of Sita, the hero's wife, from a kidnapping by the demon king to birth of her sons. Interspersed throughout the film are animated scenes from Paley's troubled marriage.

"Sita" is Paley's first feature, but the story behind the film is just as rich with heartbreak and triumph as anything onscreen.

In 2002, Paley was living in Trivandrum, India with her husband when she returned to the U.S. for a business trip. She was pitching a new comic strip in New York when her husband notified her, via e-mail, that their marriage was over. Devastated, and with nowhere else to go, Paley started sofa surfing at the homes of friends in The Big Apple.

While staying with a record collector she heard Annette Hanshaw's "Mean to Me" for the first time.

"Her voice is sweet and vulnerable even when she's singing about men doing her wrong. There was just an innocence and directness about [her songs]," Paley said.

Hanshaw's songs struck a chord in Paley and drummed up images of a woman she saw in an Amar Chitra Katha comic book retelling the tale of Ramayana, an Indian epic about a hero, Rama, and his wife, Sita.

In the comic book translation, two panels dedicated to Sita puzzled Paley.

"Sita asks Mother Earth to take her back into her womb, and then the story kicked off into other places. It seemed like something like that was more important, like it was deserving of more than a panel or two," Paley said.

She was also a bit outraged at the seeming slight to the female character.

When Paley heard Hanshaw's songs, she felt as if Sita was singing to her from across time and space. She started writing "Sita Sings the Blues."

"I wasn't even conceptualizing it. I felt like it was all there, I heard it in the songs and I read in in the story, and I was just trying to capture it in another medium, so it wasn't just in my own head," she said.

In the film, much of Sita's story is told as she sings Hanshaw's songs.

Paley had found an outlet for her inner turmoil, but it was about to unleash a whole new set of external complications.

From the outset, Paley and others were trying to size up the hoops she might have to jump through to use Hanshaw's songs in her movie.

"I knew that I had to use [the songs] and I knew I was going to use them, regardless. But once I made that decision I figured I may as well know which laws I was breaking," she said.

She discovered quickly that the recordings were public domain and free to use, but the copyrights on the composition were still held by corporations that traded them like chips in a poker game. Using the songs in a film instead of just for personal use also raised other issues that were only going to be resolved with one thing - money. Lots of it.

She approached the licensors with a request to use the songs; they responded with a "bargain" estimate of $220,000. Paley's budget for the entire film was only $200,000, so she thought her only options were either canning the film and never showing it or committing civil disobedience.

She eventually negotiated a significantly lower amount with a contingency that requires additional payments if she sold more than 5,000 DVDs or downloads, but it still meant she wasn't reaching the maximum possible audience.

In October 2008, she decided to release the film for free on the Internet under a Creative Commons license, which grants anyone the right to share the film or even remix it so long as she was credited as the original creator and any remixes are covered under the same license. A free copy of the film went live in March 2009.

For those considering skipping Salem Cinema's theatrical release, and one of only seven 35mm prints in the world, Paley has simple advice.

"You can't download a cinema. It's completely different and that's what I made it for - especially an arts cinema, which is exactly where I'd always hoped it would be seen," Paley said.

"Sita Sings the Blues" opens at the new Salem Cinema location, 445 High Street NE, July 24. Other films playing this month at Salem Cinema, include "Moon," "American Violet,"and "The Girlfriend Experience."

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