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Nina Paley’s Path to "Sita Sings the Blues"

by on May 21, 2008

It’s not every filmmaker who can combine an ugly divorce, an ancient Indian epic, and the work of a 1920’s blues singer to produce their first feature film, but Nina Paley isn’t just any filmmaker. Paley’s professional career began as an underground cartoonist, with Nina’s Adventures, her semi-autobiographical first comic strip, spreading to a number of California-based alternative newspapers while she was in her 20’s. In 1997, she launched Fluff with Universal Press Syndicate, eventually landing in 40 mainstream newspapers worldwide. The monotony of doing a daily comic strip caused Paley to burn out after two years (even though she would go on to create The Hots for King Features Syndicate in 2002).

Hanuman Burns LankaSeeking something that would be “challenging…and pay even less money than comics,” Paley turned to animation in 1998, starting off with stop-motion clay puppets and a vintage super-8 camera to make the short film “Luv Is…” Further experiments with traditional animation and stop-motion quickly led to three more short films: “Cancer,” “Follow Your Bliss,” and “I Heart My Cat,” the last of which won the Olympia WA Film Festival’s Audience Choice first prize in 1999. Paley created the first cameraless IMAX film, Pandorama, in 1999, and followed it up in 2001 with “Fetch!,” an endearing short film about a man playing fetch with his dog in a world of optical illusions. The short continues to be a favorite at children’s film festivals, and also appeared on the Avoid Eye Contact Vol. 2 DVD.

The next three of her short films were a radical change of pace, and a great risk undertaken for something she was passionate about. The central topic of Paley’s “Fertility Cycle” shorts is overpopulation, with “The Stork” suggesting that the little bundle of joy the stork brings is really a bomb; “Fertco” taking aim at the fertility industry; and “The Wit and Wisdom of Cancer” placing several common counter-arguments to population control in the mouths of animated cancer cells. She fully expected them to be “extremely unpopular, and possibly end my animation career.” Much to her surprise, the films were extremely well-received, leading to first prize at the EarthVision Environmental Film Festival and an invitation to the Sundance Film Festival in 2003.

Sita cries a riverIn June 2002, Paley moved to Trivandrum, India with her husband at the time, who had taken a new job there. It was there that she discovered two things: The Ramayana, the ancient Indian epic; and her husband’s latent mid-life crisis, which isolated her in a foreign city where “women were 2nd-class citizens.” Her initial take on The Ramayana was that it was little more than misogynist propaganda. The hero of The Ramayana is the god Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who is married to Sita, viewed in Indian culture as the epitome of feminine virtue. Rama eventually rejects Sita and ends their marriage, and Paley has stated that at first, “I was puzzled and somewhat appalled that Sita was considered a heroine. She seemed so submissive — a terrible role model.”

Three months after moving to India, Paley’s husband ended their marriage via e-mail when she was in New York City meeting with King Features Syndicate about The Hots. Literally homeless, Paley spent several months borrowing sofas or spare rooms with friends, one of whom was record collector Sherwin Dunner. While sleeping on his sofa, Paley discovered the records of Annette Hanshaw, a 1920’s singer whose blues and torch songs seemed to express Paley’s own feelings of heartbreak. Simultaneously, she began to see The Ramayana as a work that “(captured) the essence of painful relationships, and (described) a blueprint of human suffering.”

She first combined these three strands of her life in animated form with “Trial by Fire,” a 2003 short film that adapted Sita’s march through a funeral pyre set to a recording of Hanshaw singing “Mean to Me.” The short won second place at the 2004 ASIFA-East Animation Festival, but Paley’s own heartbreak remained unresolved. As a result, Paley set out to make her first feature film: Sita Sings the Blues, which would tell the parallel stories of her own failed marriage and the Rama and Sita marriage of The Ramayana, all set to the blues music of Annette Hanshaw.

Sita and AgniInterestingly, she had no plans to move make her own feature film before then. According to Paley, the biggest difference between doing a feature and doing shorts was, “The story complexity. A short is good for a single idea, a single change. This had to have a change in every scene, following the arc of one big change.” In this regard, basing the movie on The Ramayana meant much of this work was already done for her. As was common in many of her other films, Sita Sings the Blues mixes multiple animation techniques and styles, mixing the Rama and Sita Flash animated characters with rotoscoped sequences and Malaysian shadow puppets — a result of what Paley told us was an experimenting spirit, a low boredom threshold, attention deficiency disorder, an inability to make up her mind, and, for Sita specifically, “a desire to refer to the many art traditions associated with the story: Mughal Miniatures, temple sculptures, shadow puppets, comic books, devotional cards, etc.” Given more time, she would have squeezed in even more styles.

Paley’s films are one-woman shows: her animation staff is herself alone (and, given her methods, she states that “I’d drive a staff crazy”) working on destkop-grade hardware. She tends not to work from a script or full storyboards at all. Those storyboards she does use are usually to jog her memory, and she admits that “those storyboards I do scribble out are illegible to anyone but me.” From there, described her working process as, “some scribbly sketching to work out ideas. Then straight to Flash; Flash to Quicktime and Quicktime to Final Cut Pro.”

Her “Fertility Cycle” short films demonstrated that Paley is clearly not shy of controversy or creative risk-taking, and Sita has drawn fire from multiple places. Far-right Hindus claim that Sita Sings the Blues mocks their traditions, while far-left academics criticize her as a neocolonialist, deciding that “any white person doing a project like this is by definition racist.” Paley shrugs off these criticisms, partially because many of these critics have not even seen the film and partially because of the enthusiastic reception it has received from many second-generation Indian Americans.

Currently, Sita Sings the Blues has been screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2008, the NatFilm festival in Denmark in March, and the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April. It has received glowing reviews and much positive press, and Paley added that, “every single audience has been fantastic!” She is currently running the festival circuit with Sita and hoping for a distribution deal, even though she is “out of money” and doing festivals is “racking up expenses like you wouldn’t believe” due to travel expenses, licensing fees, and things like getting French subtitles made in time for the Annecy Animation Festival in June. Until a distributor picks up the film, upcoming festivals screening Sita will be in such disparate locations as Seattle, France, Serbia, Taipei, and the U.K. (check Paley’s weblog for the latest scheduling information).

In addition to e-mail communications with Nina Paley, the following sources were used for this profile:

  • Nina Paley’s biography page, weblog, and Sita Sings the Blues website
  • Wired magazine: One-Woman Pixar’s Animated Film Premieres at Tribeca
  • LiveMint.com/The Wall Street Journal: Nina Paley | It’s me, not you
  • BBC World News – Talking Movies – Sita Sings the Blues
  • toonbytes Extended Video Interview
  • Flash Goddess: Featured Artist – Nina Paley
  • The Speculist: An Animated Discussion – Speaking of the Future with Nina Paley

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