A playfully irreverent jukebox musical that overlays Old Testament icons, autobiographical asides and well-known pops tunes, “Seder-Masochism” was always going to cause a stir. With her follow-up to 2008’s similarly ambitious “Sita Sings the Blues,” director Nina Paley delivers a feminist corrective to some foundational biblical myths that doubles as a sly commentary on Jewish-American identity.
Though the filmmaker will not be on hand to present the film at its world premiere this Monday, she’s created the one-size-fits-all Producer X title for whoever volunteers to represent the film throughout its festival life. Her friend Chantelle Hougland will represent the film in Annecy, and the filmmaker sent her stand-in with message for prospective buyers. “If they approach her,” says Paley, “I asked her to remind them that I’m a copyright abolitionist and a free culture activist. So if they’re still interested after that, then we should talk…”
How did the idea for this project come about?
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Nina Paley: It kind of came out of “Sita Sings The Blues”, which brought up a lot of identity politics issues. A group Hindu fundamentalists, who were on the rise in India back then and even more so in the years since, called my Hindu collaborators “self-hating Hindus”, and I was like, “I know that phrase! My people came up with that phrase!” I would get hate mail where people said “how would you like it if people made a film about your religion?” Though they always assumed I was Christian, the fact is, I would have enjoyed it very much!
There’s also this idea that you’re only allowed to make art based on your genetic heritage. Even if I’m an atheist, the fact that I’m a Jew means that I’m allowed to do stuff about Judaism, and I just thought, “alright, fine. You want stuff about my own religion?” And that was one of the reasons I decided to do something based on Passover, because I was raised with that.
As the film’s title would suggest, you don’t shy away from some of the sharper edges of the story.
The book of Exodus was a lot grimmer than I expected. I was just raised with Passover, and it was this nice story. We were oppressed, we were slaves and then we’re free, hooray! I was not aware of the mass slaughter, and the whole thing was really a bummer. Reading the laws for women, which were completely unfair, that was drag as well. So I’d committed to doing this movie about Exodus, and worked with it for years when doing the Moses scenes, and I was like, “Uh, how am I going to finish this movie?”
What was hard was finding the point, finding a structure for the film, and what was I trying to say. Or as I put it, what was my muse doing with me? What did she have in mind? It was really uncomfortable waiting. There were months, almost years, where I just like, “Why has my muse brought me to this point?”
Eventually I understood that this movie was in fact about The Goddess, who was invisible in the Old Testament until you start looking for her, and then you start recognizing her everywhere.
You also include candid conversations between yourself and your late father. Did you always know how you would animate them and incorporate them into the film?
I knew from even before I recorded my dad that I wanted that kind of Old Testament bearded God to be the depiction of him. And then the depiction of myself was like, how about the sacrificial goat? The burnt offering is the way you communicate with God in the Old Testament. A great deal of Exodus is all about roasting animals and sending a sweet offering unto the lord, and that’s how you communicate. I’m not just a goat, I’m a goat on a flaming alter. Also there’s the whole scapegoat, and certainly my role in my family fit that. There’s also something of the black sheep, which is not a goat but close enough.
What was it like to work with those tapes in the years since he passed away?
I mostly put it away. I listened to the recording but I couldn’t do anything with it, and I didn’t animate those scenes until the very end. I felt a lot of weight lifting when I finally animated to them. I knew they were there, and I knew I wanted to use them, but I wasn’t really living with them. Every couple years I would listen to them again and be like “nope, not ready yet!” And then finally, I was.
Apart from those conversations, the film is entirely driven by musical numbers. Did you have the full soundtrack in mind before you started work on the project?
Some things I knew very clearly that I was going to use, like “Free To Be… You And Me.” I knew that was going to be in there because it’s actually a song about the Promised Land and it also has this cultural importance for people of my generation. I was raised with that album, and it was like we were entering a Promised Land of no more racism and no more sexism and this glorious 70’s vision of equality that slammed right into the 80’s and the Reagan years, just as the Hebrew people slammed into 40 years in the desert. So that was a clear one.
“This Land is Mine” is chose because it’s associated with the movie “Exodus,” and the song is all about American Zionism, a little bit before my time, but it shaped American culture and explains a lot of my relatives’ behavior.
Other songs I didn’t know I would use before I started animating those scenes. For the plagues, for examples, I had to go looking for a song about frogs. The weirdest that happened is that the longest song is actually the most recently made. It’s called “Spider Suite” and it’s by a friend of mine here in Urbana, IL, Dave King and his group the Duke of Uke. I had just happened to hear it; I bought their CD and listened to it, and just went, “Oh, this is the song for the death of the first born.” And I went out of my way to not ask him for permission, just on principle! [Laughs]
You also include songs by The Beatles, Gloria Gaynor and Led Zeppelin, among others. Was that in part to make the right even harder to clear than they were for your previous film?
As far as I’m concerned, my work on the movie is free. It’s dedicated to the public domain, so anybody could do whatever they want with that. Then the issue is the music rights. Anyone that wants to take my public domain work and then clear the music rights for commercial distribution will actually have an edge over any other distributor. Not only do they not need my permission – though it would probably behoove them to get my cooperation – but if one does it, nobody else will want to clear those rights because they’d rather license them from whomever clears them first. I didn’t even think about legitimate commercial distribution until I talked to a friend of mine in the business, who said that it could actually be possible. They don’t need my permission, and it would be interesting if somebody tried.
I’m not going to do it, of course. Personally, I have no idea how this movie’s going to go into the world. At the very least, it will leak. I shouldn’t say hopefully, but it seems likely. My goal is just for as many people to see it as possible and I don’t know exactly how that’s going to happen.
Would you go the “Sita” route and release the film online?
The Internet has such promise. When “Sita” came out, it was this amazingly free space and since then there’s been great effort expended on closing it off. Instead of active blogs we have social media, the walled gardens of Facebook and Twitter. For movies, the Internet has sort of replicated the broadcaster model, where you have these centralized distributors. There was this brief time when it seemed like you could have genuinely alternative distribution, but now everybody’s looking for the same centralized iTunes or Netflix or Hulu, or whatever. But the Internet’s still there; if people want to expend the effort and just look for something independent that’s not going through one of these commercial channels, they can find it. But it will take some effort on their part.
There’s one other venue, which would be public television stations in the US. They have blanket licenses, so you don’t have to individually clear everything. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has a blanket deal with all the main licensers, and I guess they don’t have to deal with sync rights. So that’s something I have to think about, how to get the attention of public television stations. And then any station that shows it has to be concerned about the political content of the movie, which might upset people and might be a risk they don’t want to take. But at least it won’t be illegal.
And in your ideal scenario?
My dream would be that everyone would download it. They would find it on some torrent somewhere and download it. People that didn’t know how to download stuff from bit torrent would learn. [Laughs] Even I don’t know how to use bit torrent! The free culture activist in me really wants people to go around conventional commercial distribution channels. It’s like, I’ll go around then if you go around them, just get the film. That’s my dream.