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by Bryce J. Renninger
July 28, 2009 9:10 AM
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cinemadaily | Artistic Integrity and Copyright while "Sita Sings the Blues" on DVD

A still from Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues." [Image courtesy of filmmaker.]

Berlinale alum "Sita Sings the Blues" from animator Nina Paley is finally getting a DVD release. Paley's allies at Question Copyright, explain the issue, "After pouring three years of her life into making the film, and having great success with audiences at festival screenings, she now can't distribute it, because of music licensing issues: the film uses songs recorded in the late 1920's by singer Annette Hanshaw, and although the recordings are out of copyright, the compositions themselves are still restricted. That means if you want to make a film using these songs from the 1920s, you have to pay money — a lot of money (around $50,000.00)." The article continues, "The music in 'Sita Sings The Blues' is integral to the film: entire animation sequences were done around particular songs. As Nina says in the interview [embedded on the Question Copyright page], incorporating those particular recordings was part of her inspiration. To tell her — as many people did — to simply use different music would have been like telling her not to do the film at all. And that's part of her point: artists 'internalize the permission culture,' which in turn affects the kinds of art they make."

After seeing the film at festivals, many critics began to rave about it and became incredibly disappointed when it looked like the majority of the filmgoing public would not see the film. Roger Ebert says this of his first time seeing the film, "I put on the DVD and start watching. I am enchanted. I am swept away. I am smiling from one end of the film to the other. It is astonishingly original. It brings together four entirely separate elements and combines them into a great whimsical chord. You might think my attention would flag while watching An animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920's jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. Quite the opposite. It quickens." On the Spout blog, Karina Longworth raves about the film, describing it as one of the Best Undistributed Films of 2008. She says, "The 82 minute feature cross cuts between the story of the director’s own divorce, and a loose retelling of the ancient Indian myth Ramayana; we’re led back and forth between the two milieu by three silhouetted figures who colloquially comment on the events in Indian-inflected English. There are also musical numbers, set mainly to songs by 1920s jazz siren Annette Hanshaw, which drop psychedelic Bollywood versions of the Ramayana characters into Busby Berkeley configurations. It’s an infectiously personal work, and all the more admirable as a sterling example of animation meant resolutely for adults." On Cinematical, Jeffrey M. Anderson calls it one of the two films he's seen this year that have been great, feigning surprise that, "The film is not in 3D, it's not CGI-animated, and it has no fart jokes."

Through an intense study of copyright laws, Paley has realized the opportunity to allow other people to sell her work with her endorsement, and she can receive donations from these distributors. Tonight in New York, Paley will join distributor Film Karavan at Interieurs for a release party, which will feature much of her artwork. The film can be viewed for free online. To see the online options, visit the film website's wiki.

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1 Comment

  • Nina Paley | July 29, 2009 2:39 AMReply

    Thanks so much for writing about "Sita Sings the Blues"!

    I do have a correction:
    http://blog.ninapaley.com/2009/07/29/correction/ (please see my blog for active links)

    Sita Sings the Blues is 100% legal. I am free to release it commercially, which is why the film is gaining a number of commercial distributors in addition to its free sharing/audience distribution, which is also legal, and wonderful. The commercial distributors are not giving me donations; they are making legal payments.

    Sita Sings the Blues is in complete compliance with copyright regulations. I was forced to pay $50,000 in license fees and another $20,000 in legal costs to make it so. That is why I am in debt. My compliance with copyright law is by no means an endorsement of it. Being $70,000 in the hole reminds me daily what an ass the law is. The film is legal, and that legality gives me a higher moral ground to stamp my feet upon as I denounce the failure that is copyright.

    Having paid these extortionate fees, I could have gone with conventional distribution, and was invited to. I chose to free the film because I could see that would be most beneficial to me, my film, and culture at large. A CC-SA license does not absolve a creator of compliance with copyright law. The law could have jailed me for up to a year for non-commercial copyright infringement. I was forced to borrow $70,000 to decriminalize my film, regardless of how I chose to release it.

    Note that in some ways the film is not, and never will be free. Distributors must pay $1.65 per disc sold to these faceless money sinks. Transaction costs raise that amount to about $2.00 per disc. That is why my own Artist’s Edition is limited to 4,999 copies. I’ve already bled $50,000 into their vampiric maws; I have no intention of paying more.

    Thanks again!