ANSWERS: AMA with Nina Paley: the director of Sita Sings The Blues

Nina Paley

A week ago, I kickstarted the AMA series and our first featured filmmaker is Nina Paley. She is not just a sport for agreeing to jump right in, her answers are so sincere and swift. So, here are the questions sent by many people, and their respective, thoughtful answers of Nina.

Did you recognize and feel the need to reconcile any contradiction between the worldview illustrated in ‘Return Of The Goddess’ and contemporary unease (eg. see Return Of The Goddess‘ and contemporary unease (eg. see this link) with some of the symbolism therein?” – Arvind Iyer

Good question! Mostly I was trying to show an interpretation of the “golden Calf” episode I like: the lingering struggle of goddess-worship in the face of Abrahamic patriarchal monotheism. It’s an interpretation of historical myth, but it’s still a historical myth.

I don’t believe that modern “goddess-worship” can remedy patriarchy. Modern patriarchy isn’t about the genders of gods, bosses, or politicians (Hillary Clinton is still Patriarchy); it’s a system of authoritarian control so pervasive we can’t really see it. We’re like fish trying to see water. Maybe a cartoon can help remind us of the water we’re swimming in.

Remember Seder-Masochism, like Sita Sings the Blues, is a cartoon. It uses pretty broad symbols to make points. Seder-Masochism, so far, is a story about the institutionalization of patriarchy.

I understand you are part of the free culture movement. Do you ever worry that someone might take credit for your work or idea? How would you react if someone claimed your work/idea as their own or used it in ways that you would never approve of? – Ankitha Kini

No, I never worry about someone taking credit for my work, because I put my work out there freely so there are many witnesses that I’m the author. Plagiarism is much, much easier on works that are held more tightly and secretly. Putting it out there is the best security for attribution. Anyone who claims my work as their own is subject to public embarrassment and the destruction of their own reputation.


What was the inspiration behind “this land is mine”? – Sahil Sachdeva

“This Land Is Mine” is a straight-up parody of its own lyrics. How can anyone believe “god gave this land to me,” and crow about it so pompously? EVERY people on earth believes they are God’s People.

I  follow you on Facebook and see sometimes posts about “seder masochism” with animation pieces or (amazing!) embroidery and quilt pieces. What is it? A new project? A movie? something you do only for fun but not intended to be a published finished project in the end? – Maria Angela Guzman Vargas

Actually, I’ve been very unproductive this year. I moved house and had a 4-year relationship end. I call this the “research” phase of my work – re-forming many ideas and even parts of my identity, which will undoubtedly inform my work when I start “creating” again. Seder-Masochism has been on hold, but it’s shaping up to be a Radical Feminist screed, when I eventually get back to it.

I assume that you, like many animators,  constantly take feedback on your films -in-progress from your peers, friends, and guides (especially in the pre-production phase). Most people have at least some changes they would like you to make. How do you choose between the critique/feedback given by other people and what you actually want to do? Especially when the advice comes from someone more experienced than you. How do you come to a decision? – Ankitha Kini

Another good question! A feedback that strikes me as useful, I use. Most feedback is useless. Especially from “experienced” people.

Here’s how I use feedback: I want to know if the message/feeling/idea I was trying to convey, was actually communicated. I don’t need an “expert” to tell me that, I need random viewers. What did they see? How do they feel about it? From what they say about it, I can judge whether my points came across or whether they need tweaking. Any “suggestions” they have  – change this, change that – are typically useless. What’s helpful to me is gauging response and then figuring out myself what to tweak to make it communicate better.

Occasionally I ask for very specific advice. Again I expect mostly useless feedback, but I occasionally get something wise. When I ask for specific advice, then more experienced artists can be helpful. But usually I just want to observe random people’s reactions, so I can gauge my work accordingly.

Besides the near-Eastern and Indian motifs used in your art and advocacy, have you considered reaching into other classical sources like in this experiment ? – Arvind Iyer

There’s no end of antique sources to work with. Currently, I’m focused on Exodus. Before I was focused on Ramayana. In the future, it may be something else.

There is a trend out there of propagating false feminism in films which eventually  sabotages the movement, along with the very strong medium that present it. Recently, it has started happening within animation as well, when frozen got labeled as a feminist film, when it clearly wasn’t. As an animator and storyteller, how would you remedy this crucial situation? Is it too early to start questioning anime’s political correctness? – Prateek Sharma

Good question Prateek! Over the last year, I’ve come to identify myself as a Radical Feminist. Much “feminism” we see touted in the mainstream is liberal feminism, which is tepid, apologetic, and sometimes downright misogynistic. “Frozen” might be liberal feminism; it certainly isn’t radical. Obviously, mainstream studio films won’t get any further than liberal feminist, if even that. Radical feminist films can only be made by, well, radicals, who by definition are not mainstream.

Anyway, the best way to address things being wrongly mislabeled “feminist” is to call them out, as you did in your question!

While illustrating, what were your challenges and key thoughts while drawing the female body? (To explain…. We hear about how cartoons / illustrations tend to exaggerate curvaceousness and objectifies bodies – how did you keep away from that?) – Kirthi Jayakumar

I’m of two minds about exaggerating secondary sexual characteristics in cartoons. Yes, it can be a further objectification of women – if it’s designed to titillate male viewers, as in anime porn. But it can also be used to critique objectification itself. My Sita is exaggerated, but she’s not titillating (as least I hope not!). I made Sita’s body ridiculously curvaceous and busty because the whole point of her story was how she was abused, objectified, and propertized because she was female and “beautiful.”

I do find the human body and its variations quite beautiful, by the way. That’s different than trying to make objects to sexually turn on men. Patriarchal objectification of women has the pernicious effect of denying everyone human beauty. Nudity is considered “dirty” because it turns men on. Women have to be more covered up than men lest they arouse men and get blamed for it. I’d like to go shirtless on a hot day, but I can’t because breasts have been totally sexualized in my culture. I’d like to swim naked because come on, it’s water, and bathing suits are ridiculous and only draw more attention to erogenous zones. It’s endlessly frustrating.

So sometimes naked and/or exaggerated female forms can be empowering. And other times they can be disempowering, as when they are designed to cater to men’s fetishes. And probably sometimes they can be both because men can turn any damn thing into a fetish. But I’d rather ignore the men, and focus on the beauty and other things that make art meaningful to me.

Was there any movie or series that inspired you to become an animator? – aravindh chidambaram

Probably everything I’ve ever seen has inspired me now way or another. I did watch the Beatles “Yellow Submarine” at least once a year growing up when it was broadcast on TV. But so many things have influenced me I can’t possibly name them all.

In a medium that is in essence very expensive, cinema or animation – how do you suggest one makes a profit in a free culture movement? Though I see a lot of goods coming out of a community of free culture work, how does it work itself out in terms of returns? – Vaishnavi Sundar

My projects are not expensive. Traditional studio setups are expensive, but I’m not a traditional studio. A big part of my process is working cheap. There’s no way I could do what I do if I needed investors. Money is inherently conservative, and the more you need/use, the fewer risks you can take.

As for making money with Free Culture, I’ve written and spoken about it extensively.

How would you respond to critics who call you a racist for making movies about a different culture? (I obviously disagree) – Soorya Sriram

I don’t agree with them. They did, however, help inspire me to start Seder-Masochism. “Oh, I’m only allowed to base works on the so-called ‘culture’ of my ancestors? That will be less offensive, will it? Well let’s see what happens when I tackle ‘my people’s’ Abrahamism then.” It’s possible Seder-Masochism will upset more people than SSTB did, and it has nothing to do with my “race” or “culture.”

Filmmakers around the world and especially in India face a lot of hardships from fanatics and fundamentalist while depicting gods outside their usual settings. Did you face any such backlash during the making of Sita sings the blues? – Sahil Sachdeva

Yes, much backlash. I keep a whole file of email threats and harassment. Plus there’s this hilarious online petition to “ban SSTB from the internet

It’s hilarious to me because I live outside India. Although these fanatics are a growing threat in the US too: <link> But Hindu fundamentalists are dwarfed in the US by our homegrown Abrahamic fundamentalists, mostly Christian. They probably won’t take kindly to Seder-Masochism, if and when it’s finally finished.

During the making of Sita Sings the Blues toughest thing you had to face? What inspired you to overcome that and complete the project? – Deepthi 

The toughest part of SSTB was releasing it in our awful copyright regime. I finally found my way out of that mess, by embracing Free Culture.

The toughest part of Seder-Masochism is I really just don’t feel like working on it most of the time. It’s taking forever. But I can’t force my Muse; I have to be patient.

You are one of my favorite artists. I want to know what made you take the leap into making an entire feature length film like ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ all by yourself. Once you started, what was your work schedule like and what challenges did you face along the way? – Ankitha Kini

Sita Sings the Blues kind of felt like it made itself, and was just using me. I was in a lot of emotional anguish and it was my path through. I didn’t have a formal work schedule; I just worked, because it was my way of processing my pain.

I can’t replicate that process, because my life is different now (and better, in spite of some new challenges). Art-making isn’t really an act of will, it’s an act of submission to my Muse. I have no control over my Muse. Right now my greatest challenge may be patience, as I await further instructions. It’s possible I’m just supposed to enjoy life right now. That’s cool too.

What is your advice to a young woman wanting to pursue a career in 2D animation? She wants to make her own films like you. – Sharon Niemczyk

I can’t offer advice because everyone is different. I just sat down and made films my own way, and if that works for you, go for it. If you need more structure than that, better to ask someone who works in a more structured way.

What kind of difficulties did you face in your career? How do you deal with them? – aravindh chidambaram

For the first 20 years of my career, the toughest difficulty was poverty. Actually poverty itself isn’t that bad, it’s the shame around poverty that’s hardest. The shame causes anxiety, and the anxiety distracts you from doing important, meaningful work, and instead trying to get more money than you actually need. Getting past shame and anxiety about poverty is liberating. You need enough money to live, nothing more. After releasing SSTB as Free Culture I made more money than I’d ever had in my life, so poverty isn’t as big a deal for me today; but I still de-prioritize money. I’m actually very low income these days, but I don’t feel poor, and I feel no shame or anxiety about it, from years of practice.

Thank you, Nina, your answers are (Hell, I don’t have to apologise on my website) FUCKING awesome. Here’s hoping many Ninas and many more SSTB get made. You are amazing!