Friday, April 17, 2009

Sita sings the Blues

(sorry this is not the most thought out post, but everytime I try to think things out they just sit as drafts and never get published.)

Just watched Sita Sings the Blues (which you can too)

If you don't know, this is the deal. This woman, Nina Paley, followed her husband to India, got dumped, saw her situation reflected in the Hindu sacred text the Ramayana and in the 1920's American blues jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, and made a movie weaving those elements together as part of her healing process. Annette Hanshaw's music was recorded over 80 years ago (so it almost got into public domain but that got changed a few years back) and should be up for public use, but the arrangement of the music is owned by some huge corporation. So Nina thought it was cool to use the songs until the corporation said "you gotta pay us for the arrangment". So Nina says fine I won't sell it I'll give it away.

Anyway this is interesting because Annette Hanshaw is dead, and no one knows her music because it's all wrapped up in red tape. Nina wants to make new art responding to someone else's art, but legally she can't afford to. It'd be different if Annette's family or children would get the money, but it's just going into a giant bank for some company that won't even notice it. On the one hand you need to make it possible for people to make something and be compensated for it, on the other if things are so wrapped up then you can't make anything knew because you don't have room to move and think and expand on ideas.

as Nina says:
"Well, there's a good answer to that. The corporations that hold these copyrights are media companies that also control most of the new media that comes out. Estimates vary, but it's said that 98 percent of all culture is unavailable right now because of copyrights. So the reason they hold the copyrights isn't because they want to get paid, it's because they don't want all the old stuff competing with the media stream that they control now. ... I don't think any of this is conscious, or that it's a conspiracy theory. All these rules were developed before we had the internet. The times are just changing so fast, business law isn't coping very well."

anyway, it's a super complicated issue with good points on both sides. To me it feels like the older a system gets the more ossified with beauracracy it gets so that nothing can happen and you need some kind of big shake up to make things moveable again. I think we just need a new paradigm for human interaction and organization. The times they are a changing.

other interesting thoughts of Nina's:
Q: What is your philosophy regarding your responsibility as an artist?

A: Some critics have said that making my movie "as a white, American woman" I have a "responsibility" to locate the work within a history of colonialist oppression account for my white privilege bla bla bla zzzzz. Yes, it's White Man's Burden all over again. So I'd like to get clear on what an artist's responsibility is:

An artist's responsibility is to be true to her/his own vision.

In other words, to be honest. That's it.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, similarly well-intentioned guardians of culture are also trying to dictate Indian artists' responsibility. I recently received a very nice email from an artist studying in Mumbai, who wrote

There is a great deal of emphasis here of being true to our Indian roots and integrating that Indian-ness into our work here. Honestly I'm a little tired of it.

I saw the same thing when I taught animation in Nairobi. UNESCO, who sponsored the program, wanted the participants to create animation that was "authentically African." My feeling was that anything they made would be authentically African, because they were authentic Africans. But UNESCO wanted their work to "look African", be based on traditional folklore, set in rural villages, etc. All this in 2004, in a big city, working on computers - many of the participants were understandably looking away from rural villages and towards the rest of the world. That's what artists do, and it's just as authentic as looking at your roots.

It's great when an artist's vision dovetails with an honorable social cause, and is naturally politically correct. I'm as eager to see homegrown Indian animation about Indian history and folklore as anyone. I'm also eager to see Indian, African, rest-of-the-world-ian animation about every other conceiveable subject - as long as it's honest. My Mumbai penpal articulated it well:

I share your opinion about the integration of identity in our work through honesty of thought. It also ensures the fact that the end result is truer to the context than the other more contrived one.

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