PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

Sita Sings the Blues

This is a beautiful and vibrant film that should be seen as much for its own merits as for what it represents in ongoing struggles over the copyright system.


Sita Sings the Blues

Director: Nina Paley
Cast: Annette Hanshaw, Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya, Reena Shah
Length: 82 minutes
Studio: NA
Year: 2009
Distributor: FilmKaravan
MPAA Rating: NR
Release Date: 2009-28-07
Website

There are many reasons why people see the films that they do. Story. Stars. Genre. Source material. Curiosity about how a film was made. Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues highlights another, more unusual reason, but one likely to become more common: how a film is distributed.

Partly out of her own experience with copyright and songs featured in the film, Paley has released Sita Sings the Blues under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License, which allows others to freely view, distribute, and create with her movie. This has made her and her film leading figures in the Free Culture movement. The political import of her film has drawn attention to her work, but also, arguably, overshadowed it, which is too bad, if not unfortunate, because Sita Sings the Blues is a beautiful and vibrant film that should be seen as much for its own merits as for what it represents in ongoing struggles over the copyright system.

At its heart, Sita Sings the Blues is an animated and multilayered retelling of the Indian epic, The Ramayana. The tag line for Sita is “The Greatest Break-up Story Ever Told”, and Paley intertwines words and images from The Ramayana, and of Rama and Sita, with ones from the dissolution of her own marriage (although in the film itself it isn't clear if the characters of Dave and Nina are married or cohabiting).

Paley's animation of The Ramayana is done in three primary styles. One uses images that look like picture book cut outs of the characters and a trio of Indonesian shadow puppets (Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally and Manish Acharya), who represent characters having a debate and discussion of the story and its meaning. Another uses spoken dialogue and an elegant painted style, with characters shown in profile and whose most prominent features are large, elongated eyes. Finally, Paley employs a digital-age update of traditional American Animation, think simple expressions and exaggerated anatomies – Sita has Betty Boop eyes, for example – in sections that also offer a musical commentary on the Hindu story. These segments use songs sung by '20s / '30s Jazz singer Annette Hanshaw as the voice of Sita.

The narration provided by the shadow puppets is important glue that holds the film together. Their conversations and discussions of characters and their meanings help to provide a context for Nina and Dave's story and for the Hanshaw songs. The different threads come together slowly, but ultimately, they do merge into a working whole.

One clever touch is the inclusion of an “intermission” that features a parade of the film's characters passing-by and mixing with each other. This nod to Indian cinema, where movies commonly run three or four hours, also functions to bring all of the different figures into a common world. More than a quirky trifle, this interlude draws attention to the constructedness of Paley's Ramayana, treating her cast as being, at once, characters, actors, and audience.

It is, however, one of the film's many moments that is almost too clever for its own good. Individual viewers will undoubtedly be divided as to whether the Annette Hanshaw segments are charming or overly precious. For the most part Paley stays on the right side of those lines, including in adding her own story to the film. There is little suggestion that those watching are meant to see she and Dave as Sita and Rama, even as Paley is drawing inspiration from the epic in dealing with her own feelings.

While the transformation of Sita Sings the Blues into a Free Culture case study happened most immediately because of legal issues involving the songs sung by Hanshaw, even without that impetus, it is not hard to see how Nina Paley could go from this film to activist. Sita Sings the Blues borrows, splices, and mixes influences from multiple sources, incorporating different versions of The Ramayana, using the shadow puppets as a nod to the already trans-national nature of the old story, and combining different styles in both the music and animation to tell its own story. The film is an exemplar of remix culture, freely and openly showing its roots and influences, but in the service of a clearly original work.

The Creative Commons license attached to Sita Sings the Blues means that film is widely available and in different formats. The FilmKaravan DVD under review here includes a commentary with Paley and QuestionCopyright.org's Karl Fogel, a trailer, and a WNET interview with Paley. The DVD also includes press and publicity material for the film. It is also a “Creator Endorsed” disc, which means not only that Paley participated in the production of the DVD, but that she shares in the profits, too.

The commentary and interview are focused on the political and legal dimensions to Sita Sings the Blues and Paley's work in the Free Culture movement. To the extent that her film has become known as much for these extra-textual reasons, it is at least in part due to Paley's own willingness to let that happen. It would be easy to resent the attention for 'non-artistic' reasons. That Paley doesn't appear to, despite having made a work that is both clever and beautiful, funny and poignant, is as good a reason as any to see her film. Better yet, organize a screening so that others can see it, too.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.