“None of my depictions of women are designed to give men boners” – Nina Paley on her latest film Seder-Masochism

We did an AMA with Nina a couple of years ago, and it was a huge hit with questions flooding us from around the world. With her latest film Seder-Masochism being complete, I got back in touch with Nina to interview her about it. A film that took about three years of work spread over six and a half years of time, cost Nina $20,000 to make it. Nina has always kept her commercials minimal, and access to her films for free. In this brief interview, we talk about her film and how she intends to distribute it by continuing to align with the Free Culture movement.

Q. Seder-Masochism has been a work-in-progress for some time, how much has it changed since your initial conceptualisation? Given the current political climate, especially concerning women’s rights, does the final version have any bearing on it?

A. Seder-Masochism began as an interpretation of Exodus and the Passover story but turned into a feminist screed by the time I finished.

 

Q. How reasonable or practicable do you find the claim that the Seder lends itself to repurposing, unlike the Haggadah that is set in stone? What are some of the most interesting experiments you have seen of Seder symbols adapted to reflect more contemporary inclusive sensibilities?

A. The Haggadah is not set in stone. People create their own Haggadahs all the time, although they must include the 15 “Parts of the Seder”. I actually made a little animation of this but it didn’t make the final cut, because even with fun music, the Seder rules are boring as hell. There are “feminist” Haggadahs and “socialist” Haggadahs and “queer” Haggadahs. My favorite is the Fucking HaggadahIt’s Exodus that is “set in stone,” or at least canonized. 

Q. The tyranny of the written word is a recurring motif in your movie trailer. Prof. Barry Sanders in his 1994 book “A is for Ox” writes of how for much of history, the “written word” was in effect an instrument of the patriarchal religious establishment that monopolized its use, whereas the “spoken word” was first acquired in the context of maternal care (underlying the term “mother tongue”). Are there contemporary analogies you see in artistic realms, such as certain media being more male-dominated than others?

 

A. All media today are male-dominated. We’re living in global Patriarchy. I suppose personal conversation isn’t necessarily male-dominated, but a personal conversation isn’t media; it’s not mediated. Jerry Mander’s books Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and In the Absence of the Sacred illustrate how media is the mediation of communication by third parties.

Q. Have you received any push-back from the increasingly conspicuous class of female rabbis who, in their own way embody inclusiveness in human terms but seem reconciled to what looks like a permanently “othered” understanding of God? Similarly, have you benefited from any collaborations with Pagan/Wiccan revivalist movements where the “Sacred Feminine” features centrally?

A. Not yet. 

Q. An instance of the “Sacred Feminine” (and the erasure of this notion in Abrahamic faiths) entering the pop-culture conversation, was via Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code”. What are some other instances of the “Sacred Feminine” idea getting some airtime, and do you think any of them have been helpful at all in challenging common theological assumptions?

A. Can I just say I thought “The DaVinci Code” sucked? It was really terrible. There is a recommended reading list in the credits of Seder-Masochism. It includes:

The Creation of Patriarchy – Gerda Lerner

The Great Mother – Erich Neumann

The Language of the Goddess – Marija Gimbutas

When God Was a Woman – Merlin Stone

Beyond God The Father – Mary Daly

Female deities can certainly enrich an individual’s religious experience, but sexism is a class issue.

Q. Considering how the continuing tradition of venerating female deities in India seems to have little association with the well-being of living breathing women (as this article describes), would you speculate whether women in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic world would have been better off if Shekinah and Lat and Uzzah and Manat had retained their place in the pantheon?

A. Indeed, veneration of female deities does not coincide with women’s well-being, as Hindu societies in South Asia amply prove. I do not believe that simply venerating female deities combats Patriarchy, except on a personal level. Female deities can certainly enrich an individual’s religious experience, but sexism is a class issue.

None of my depictions of women are designed to give men boners, that’s for sure.

Q. You have made the women in Seder (and the many animated versions of Sita in SSTB) own their opulent, buxom bodies in a way that would startle patriarchy. What parallels do you draw between celebrating women’s bodies in a film like yours, and the rampant objectification of them pandering to the fetishes of men, across media?A.

A. That’s one I have never solved. There is no escaping the objectification of women in Patriarchy. Women have secondary sexual characteristics like breasts and hips, and I exaggerate these, just as I exaggerate male characteristics like broad shoulders and narrow hips, to emphasize physical differences between men and women. I don’t want to let the existence of creepy, sexist men who fetishize that, to keep me from doing it. None of my depictions of women are designed to give men boners, that’s for sure.

The main reason I started Seder-Masochism was to have a project to organize my life around, to ground me

Q. An animated project takes an enormous amount of time, especially if you’re the only one animating it entirely, what is your typical day like, and how do you keep the spirits up while inching towards the finish line?

A. I do this because I’m an introvert and a hermit and I enjoy time alone communing with my Muse. That time passes anyway, for all of us, no matter what we do. The main reason I started Seder-Masochism was to have a project to organize my life around, to ground me. Now that’s it’s done I’m still grounded by it since my work now is “promoting” it, making merch  (which you can buy here), and doing interviews like this one. But next week I’ll be getting surgery, and my main work afterward will be healing from that.

Q. Music has been quite an integral part of your narrative, could you take us through the choice of songs/ music arrangements for Seder?

A. I chose music based on how it worked with the stories and completely ignored copyright.

Q. Aligning with the copyleft maxim, you often share and seek opinions from your friends and followers about the little things that go into making your film. Is this a way of assessing/gauging reactions from people who eventually are going to watch your film? Has it been helpful? How do you filter the responses and choose?

A. I usually do that for small, clear decisions (“what color, blue or gold?” or “which is more legible?”) and it’s hilarious how intense people get advocating for one choice or the other. I ask my social media audience for input on merch, because they’re the ones I need to buy it. People’s feedback is incredibly helpful for merch, and usually not helpful at all for creating the film, so when people go so far as to offer advice on my filmmaking (which I emphatically do NOT ask for) I ignore it entirely. When I ask for feedback I try to be very specific.

I’m not paying off corporate extortionists just to make it legal to share the film for free

Q. What’s in store for Seder in terms of a theatrical release/streaming options? How do you think the film is going to be received?

A. Unless a distributor makes a very clear Fair Use case for the film as a whole, it will have no commercial release. It’s going to be Free Culture, like Sita, but unlike Sita, I’m not paying off corporate extortionists just to make it legal to share the film for free. Hopefully, it’ll just leak and people will find creative ways to distribute it. As for how it’s received, I am eager to find out! So far the reviews have been very good, but I’m sure some people will get outraged by it, especially if it becomes popular.

—-

To follow Nina’s work, visit her website.