I first came across Sita Sings the Blues because it’s the poster child for free expression in the copyfight crowd. Its creator is Nina Paley, an indie filmmaker, animator, and writer. She created a version of the Ramayana that reflected her own life and political environment. Aubrey Menen did that was well, and made a book I have loved since I was a child. (It’s also the source of one of my favorite quotes: “What we call History is merely Shiva’s procrastination.”)
Sita Sings the Blues, like Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana, is just damn good. The Ramayana turns out to make some good culture when ripped off, which is to my mind one of the marks of a quality holy book or myth. That it was a damn good movie which also happens to get screwed by copyright law is what made it such a popular and fine example of the harm over-zealous IP protection can do, not how screwed Paley was in particular.
Much of the media generated in opposition to current copyright regimes is nice politically and all, but it’s terrible artistically. “Honesty,” says Paley, “is where the soul of art comes from.” Not community belonging, or opposition to a legal principle, or even trying to get liked. Paley’s honesty took her to pick up the songs of the long dead Annette Hanshaw and make them the voice of Sita, the wife of the god figure Rama. Hanshaw sings sad and soulful songs of lover’s devotion while getting royally screwed. Sita also gets royally screwed in the tale, a distinctive feminine view of the original, and matching Paley’s own sense of betrayal from her runaway partner, Dave.
It’s obvious when you see the film that simply nothing else could have brought the same quality as Hanshaw. A different movie could have been made, but not Sita Sings the Blues. Hanshaw is just a couple years more recent than the magic 1923 number for public domain, and therefore locked away from use without a license for many years to come. Despite the fact that nobody but Paley seems to have known about her, being publicized in Sita can only generate more interest and sales, the rightholders are strict. It would cost somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000 to ever show Sita in a theatre legally.
Some people say it’s not good art unless it pisses someone off. By that score, Sita Sings the Blues is great art. Not only does Paley live with the threat of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in suits over using Hanshaw’s songs, Hindu fundies have threatened to hang her for turning the Ramayana into a feminist yarn in which Rama comes across as kind of a dick.
If you can’t tell, I love Sita Sings the Blues. So much that it’s been nearly impossible to write about it, because every time I try I end up watching it again and just losing my writing time. It survives rewatching easily. It chunks, each little bit works as a short that still adds up to a coherent whole. Don’t just take my unqualified word for it. None other than Roger Ebert himself gushes about it at least as much as I.
One of the most telling criticisms of Paley is that she knew what she was getting into by using Hanshaw’s work. Of course she did, kind of. She knew she had right to clear. She didn’t research it too hard though. She had a movie to make, and she wanted to make her movie, not the movie that would be easy to clear rights for. “If I kill my own art out of fear of them, then I’ve really lost,” she told QuestionCopyright.org. That she walked down this road is a credit to her as an artist, even if it’s not a credit to her commercial sensibilities.
She acknowledges that her commercial problem is the common problem of remixers these days. “I am taking ideas that have been around for thousands of years, and 80 years, and only a few years… and I synthesize something.” And, like other remixers, this may mean that she can’t ever sell what she’s done. Paley went ahead and released her source files for Sita as well as posting it at archive.org. Others have started to remix her scenes into new things, some of which she posts on her blog.
As of last count the archive alone had 113,259 downloads, plus god knows how many on the torrents and from other sites. Would she have gotten more or less from a commercial release? I have no idea. I don’t know how art house indie films like Sita normally do. I suspect in the long run she will do well out of it, from donations, and a fanbase that would have been totally unreachable from the film festivals Sita would have played in. The people who cared about the copyright aspect did well too, seeing something wonderful and mythic and feminist that doesn’t generally intrude on the IP geeking community. Without her troubles and openness I don’t know that I would have gotten a chance to see Sita, so for my own small selfish part, I’m glad she ran into her copyright troubles. I hope it turns out in the long run it works out well for her too.