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Nina Paley is a New York based comic artist and animator, best known for her feature film Sita Sings the Blues, a colourful, imaginative and humorous retelling of the ancient Hindu scripture the Ramayana, the story of the divine incarnation Rama who is exiled to the forest with his wife Sita and his brother Laxmana. Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana and eventually rescued by her husband. Made in a variety of styles, it features songs by 1920s’ singer Annette Hanshaw to express Sita’s woes. The film also chronicles the artist’s own story that led to the making of the film.
The film was an instant success on the film festival circuit, and wherever it was shown, winning several awards along the way, but in an unusual move for a modern filmmaker, Nina decided to make the film available to everyone, releasing it under a Creative Commons licence. Dedicated to this distribution ethic, Nina turned down a distribution offer from Netflix, one of the biggest distributors of online films in the US, because they would not, or could not, remove the DRM that she is opposed to.
Why did you choose to animate the story of Sita and Ram?
Oh my goodness, I was so moved by it, and I had this horrendous break-up I was going through…
As portrayed in the film.
Exactly. So I went to India and read my first Ramayana there, and was fascinated with it, and I went through this break-up, and I felt like everything I saw was the Ramayana. I couldn’t get away from it. I cheesy way to say it would be, “I didn’t choose the story, it chose me”.
How did you go about developing the style for the film?
The style for the musical numbers I started while I was in Trivandrum, but I had no idea I was going to make a film. I was just drawing as a way to process all the images that were around me, and I thought maybe I’ll just do a couple of little drawings, or a little comic book or something, and that style just kind of appeared while I was in India. The rest of the styles in the film – I knew I wanted to use a lot of styles because, prior to making Sita, all of my short film I’d made in different styles. I like to work in lots of different styles to keep myself interested. I was reading as many Ramayanas as I could, and looking at as much Ramayana related art as I could, and I know there is a huge tradition of Ramayana related art from around the world, and there’s all these different, gorgeous styles from different regions and times, and I wanted to put some of that into the film, and I guess that’s what I did.
There’s also the Amar Chitra Katha comics as well…
That was the first Ramayana I ever saw.
Were there problems with Hindu fundamentalists when the film came out?
Fundamentalists were opposed to it from the beginning, and they’re still opposed to it. I suspect they assume because it’s a feature film it has a lot of publicity and they can ride on that publicity, but the fact is the only publicity it has is word of mouth. They are actually generating free publicity for the film and probably benefiting the film more by complaining about than they would if they ignored it.
You talk about the word-of-mouth aspect of promoting the film, is that the main way you’ve got audiences for it, apart from festival screenings?
Yeah. The film is free. I gave it to the audience in April of 2009, so it belongs to the audience and they share it with each other, and it spreads almost entirely through word of mouth. The audience includes all sorts of people and entities, and sometimes the audience includes movie reviewers, but I don’t have any paid PR people that are hitting up the movie reviewers. I’m still not sure how movie reviewers work. I know when the film had its theatrical run in New York, the New York Times was obligated to write a review of it. I guess certain papers write reviews of films that are running for a week or more in the city. So there’s word of reviewers, word of mouth. I would say the main way it is spreading is virally, where people see it, and if they like it they’ll send it to other people. I’ve met people in real life who’ve told me. “I loved your film and I’ve sent it to all my friends to see it”, so that seems to work quite well. Hopefully their friends will tell their friends.
What made you decide to make it a free film? Logically, it seems counterproductive.
It’s actually super productive. It’s hyper-productive. Basically, I wanted the film to be seen, and the existing models for releasing independent films lead to a lot of great films that just don’t get seen, because they don’t have a way to spread because of the way copyright works, and so-called intellectual property works, is by restricting people’s access to a work. You put a wall around something and then people can only get through that wall if they go through an authorised channel and pay for it. With small films, that tends to be really hard to do, it’s not really easy to find. It’s not usually worth the expense to keep it in cinemas, so even if people are happy to pay whatever to see the film, there’s not enough people that know about the film to actually have it running in the cinema. I saw so many films die in obscurity on the festival circuit, I didn’t want that to happen to my film. Of course, there was the whole issue of clearing the old songs.
The whole point is that people can see the film and the more that see it, the more the value of the film increases. When it runs in a cinema, the more people will pay for cinema tickets because we can’t afford the film, and they have to know about it some way. Seeing a film in the cinema is very different to seeing it online, especially as most people who have already seen it, have seen it in some other form. They pay to see it in a cinema for the cinema experience. None of this would happen if they weren’t sharing the film with each other, because no one would know about the film, and I’ve seen that happen to plenty of great films, and I didn’t want it to happen to mine. So I freed it.
You are quite outspoken about copyright, is this the same issue about getting the film seen and don’t want it controlled by corporations?
I want people to be able to see it. There’s cultural value and money value, and there’s price, which is something different from value. Cultural works have more value the more they are seen, and I need to distinguish free. Free has two meanings in English, there’s gratis, as in free beer, and libera, which free, as in free speech. I still charge money for copies. When it’s in cinemas I still charge money for tickets. We charge for any scarce goods associated with the film, it’s just that the content is free. Anyone can quote the film, copy the film, build on the film, and all that. It’s such a simple concept that we’re not used to it after a couple of hundred years of copyright. I think of my film as just like Shakespeare. Wouldn’t it be cool to be Shakespeare? It would be awesome to be Shakespeare. If Shakespeare came back today, would he be a pauper? No he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t be getting royalties on his plays because they are in the public domain, but he would get enormous speaking fees, for example, if he wanted to speak. He would get gifts. All these fears that artists have about, “We’re gonna be poor, we’re gonna die on the street”, are just not true. But royalties represent price – they don’t even represent price. Royalties aren’t how most artists make their living, they’re not how I make my living. I wanted to free the film because I was worried about the cultural value of the film and I wanted it to have cultural value. What surprised me was I’d made significantly more money freeing the film.
In China and Brazil, for example, musicians don’t charge for their music CDs because they get pirated, so they make their money from live performances and merchandise, and they are two of the strongest economies in the world at the moment.
I actually charge for DVDs, but I charge for the copies that I sell, but I don’t charge for the copies that you make. It doesn’t cost me anything if someone makes a copy of my film. It costs me something if I make a copy, so if I make a copy I will sell it to you for money and what I am charging you for is the copy. Not the content, but the copy. If you make a copy, I haven’t lost anything.
Which is so wonderfully expressed in that song you did, Copying Is Not Theft.
You’re also doing your own Sita merchandising…
Other people could certainly do that, but nobody is. It’s weird. Anybody could make Sita merchandise, but no one is. It makes sense because the only reason people buy merchandise is to support the artist and they want to know they are supporting me. Also, making merchandise is a pain in the ass. Who wants to go through that pain in the ass? If they wait long enough I’ll go through it.
What about those bags, are they being made in India?
The bags are made in India, but they weren’t my idea. The bags were the idea of an organisation called Ubuntu at Work that is trying to come up with projects that these women artisans can make and can have some control over. The Sita bags were just an experiment. I didn’t ask them to make them, they came to me, and I said, “Sure, if you make them I’ll try and sell them on my website”. I’m more excited about the Sita dolls that are coming up, which are going to the appliquéd and embroidered Sita part, but instead of being on a bag they’ll be their own stuffed thing and they’ll be less expensive and hopefully interesting works of art. But that project is to support the artisans involved, not so much me. It’s not royalty generation, it’s not for profit.
Is it the same ethic as the movie, to support the creators and not the distributors?
Somewhat. It’s sort of a new thing. It was just a surprise that this organisation approached me. It was just an opportunity that came up and I was like, “Sure, I’ll check this out”. I don’t really know what to make of it, except that it’s interesting and we’ll see if people buy the stuff, and if they do these women will have more work, and if they don’t, they’ll come up with some other product.
Do you think it is important for artists to diversify into as many different areas as they can?
I don’t think all artists are suited to it. I basically do what I want to do and it happens that I enjoy, even though it’s a pain making merch I enjoy designing things, so I’m suited to it. I really don’t think this is a model, or a box, that one should try and fit into. It would be very cool if there were services for filmmakers who didn’t want to do this kind of work, who could get merch or other ancillary products without having to set up their own stores, and without having to sign licensing agreements. Most of the business models around film only work with restrictive licences. Rather substantial publishers were interested in doing a Sita graphic novel, which would have been great except they didn’t want it to be open licensed, so there’s no Sita book. However, there are publishers that do open license books, but they don’t do pop culture stuff. O’Reilly does lots of books, so it’s a pretty solid business model, but these pop culture publishers don’t believe it yet and it’s probably going to be a few years until they do. That’s just one example of the kind of service that could exist to support artists.
So you haven’t thought about going on the self-publishing or print-on-demand route?
The potential for exploitation is much, much greater than what I’m actually doing. Again, I would love to work with publishers, I would love to work with other merchandisers, but I’m sure there are others who could make much more merch and sell it to other people, but they’re not, probably because they’ve never worked with an open license before.