A scene from Nina Paley's "Seder-Masochism"

Our Favorites 2018: Nina Paley on Setting the Table for “Seder-Masochism”

This week, we’re celebrating the people who made some of the best films of the past year possible.

“Do you have a laptop here?” Nina Paley asked me, looking over at my satchel just to my left. It’s a day after her latest film “Seder-Masochism” premiered at the Animation is Film Festival in Los Angeles and after pouring the last seven years of her life into making the gloriously sacrilegious and ribald comedy, she is eager to download it onto my computer in an instant.

“Anyone who has a laptop, I’m like, “Here, make a backup of the film!” says Paley. “Because the more places it is, the more chances it has of being seen.”

While Paley’s films should be seen far and wide, it shouldn’t be like this, an unfortunate byproduct of the animator’s proclivity to use tracks from Led Zeppelin and The Beatles should she feel it’s right a given scene, songs that individually would cost several times more to use than the budgets of her entire film. She’s reluctantly made amends with this arrangement, finding that the investment in vivid visual design that open eyes as widely of an audience as she’ll draw them on her bold, colorful characters can pay off in stylish merch rather than any box office she’s losing by not having the ability to distribute her films commercially, and has even become intrigued by it, watching her last film “Sita Sings the Blues” find its way to thousands through myriad channels.

“All I know is I have to put it out there, I have to make it as accessible as I can and then see what people do with it,” adds Paley.

Her generosity is inspiring, not only in how the work is being released – well before the festival run of “Seder-Masochism,” she was posting sequences of it to her blog, but how much she includes of herself in it, drawing on conversations with her late father Hiram Paley as a way into her unorthodox reading of the Book of Exodus, highlighting the way in which women were written out of scripture. After ingeniously adapting the Ramayana for “Sita Sings the Blues,” finding herself with the free to study after growing distant from her husband who moved to India for a job opportunity, Paley casts herself quite literally as a sacrificial lamb speaking up towards the heavens to a traditional vision of God, complete with a long, flowing white beard and her father’s voice in “Seder-Masochism,” structuring the film as if a family were swapping stories over a Passover Seder. Although there’s plenty of merriment in bringing the traditional plate of Z’roa, beitzah, maror, karpas, haroset and hazeret to life in rousing fashion with a musical number to illustrate the 10 plagues and envisioning Moses tap-dancing with goats, the grandiosity of Paley’s storytelling is counterbalanced by asking her father why he insisted on continuing to observe Passover when the family wasn’t especially religious otherwise, illustrating the powerful hold narratives can build as tradition well after they’ve lost personal meaning and how resistant they can be to reconsideration even after they’re demonstrably outdated.

To overcome this, Paley disarms audiences with infectious music, ever-bold animation and a steady and provocative stream of evidence about the repercussions of perpetuating Old Testament tales without question as an inspiration for violence and a tool to continue the exclusion of minorities who weren’t empowered to be part of the initial drafts of the sacred texts. Naturally, “Seder-Masochism” feels fresh for no other reason than originating from a female perspective, but Paley’s wit and intellectual rigor remain singular and as the film continues to screen around the world, the animator reflected on the year she’s had, contemplating thousands of years of history for her latest project and how her work – as well as that of others – can continue to live online or if it can.

A scene from Nina Paley's "Seder-Masochism"How did this come about?

Some of it was the response to “Sita Sings the Blues.” Most were positive, but some people believe that if you’re going to do something based on an ancient story, it has to be compatible with your genetics or family heritage, so they assumed I was Christian, and [some said] “This white Christian woman has appropriated the Ramayana. How would you like it if we did something about your religion?” And of course, I would’ve loved that. I was like “Please, please!” But it became clear to me with identity politics that I was expected to do something supposedly about my religion and heritage, so I [thought] “Okay, fine. I’ll do something about Judaism/Ibrahimism and you will not like it any more.” [laughs] So I’m trying to dispel this notion that magically you make better stuff according to this identity politics theory of art.

I started [the project] by just looking at Passover, which I was raised with, and I had never actually read Exodus, so I read Exodus to find out what that was about and then read more Exodus because Exodus didn’t make sense and then read more commentaries on Exodus to understand it. I also had a little Kickstarter project to buy audio equipment to record Passover seders because I thought Passover seders would actually be the foundation for this film, but it turned out I never used them. I tried really hard, but they were too boring.

It seems like the conversations with your late father fills that role nicely. How did that find its way in?

I did that stuff with my father last, [although I recorded it years ago when] he was dying. I thought I should just get an interview with him before he goes because I never talked to him too much about [religion], and I wanted to include it, not even because of specific things that he said but because you can hear the tension in our relationship. That tension is very universal even though it’s also very personal and it’s also not just father and daughter, it’s male and female, [showing how] patriarchy worked for him in a way that it doesn’t for me.

There’s also the money thing, which if we have a God in this society, it is money, and [I was interested in how] my father’s concerns about me with money wasn’t that I literally didn’t have enough money, because I did. It was that I was not displaying an obeisance to money in what he considered the proper way. The conversation was unscripted and I just asked him some questions about Passover and it was funny that he brought up money, but it was perfect because it was a commentary on what religion is. Religion isn’t just following scripture. We have other things. Money especially – money is the God that demands blood sacrifice in our world.

A scene from Nina Paley's "Seder-Masochism"You are uncompromising in this regard since you include music from Led Zeppelin and the Beatles that not even the biggest blockbusters would be able to afford the rights to use. Did your experience on “Sita Sings the Blues” embolden you in that regard since your musical choices will likely prevent a commercial release? Do you know how it’ll go out into the world?

I am eager to see how this gets out into the world. When “Sita Sings the Blues” came out, the Internet was the frontier. And the way I permitted “Sita” to go out into the world was very radical. The internet is no longer the frontier, or what we know of the internet. There are all these centralized video distribution platforms, which is a walled garden. People almost never go to blogs. There’s Vimeo and YouTube, and YouTube is practically unusable because they have robots that take down everything. They took down my “Copying is Not Theft” song, which I wrote and recorded myself because of other copyright claims, and it’s just too much trouble to argue with YouTube all the time to have Fair Use or about stuff that you made yourself.

Vimeo has been a lot better, but in the last couple of weeks, Vimeo has started using these robots that don’t have any fail safe for fair use and once again they’re making the filmmaker contest these claims. The amount of work I have to argue with the robots is more than I’m willing to do, so my Vimeo account might be cancelled soon. But then it’s like how are people going to see my film? And the answer is I don’t know. But with “Sita,” I was surprised by the ways it got out. I put it out there and discovered different ways that people were sharing it and I really hope that happens with this film too. All I know is I have to make it as accessible as I can and then see what people do with it and I will learn from what the audience does.

A scene from Nina Paley's "Seder-Masochism"Giving yourself that freedom creatively, do you have songs in mind from the start you can build musical sequences around?

There were some songs I knew for sure I would use. I start with what I know. I know the basic story of Exodus, so there was going to be Hebrew slaves in Egypt, a burning bush and the crossing of the Red Sea, and [that meant] there were basic chapters and there were some songs where obviously, I didn’t have to think about it. It’s like, “Yes, I’m going to be using ‘Free to Be You and Me’ for the crossing of the Red Sea.” I didn’t know that there was also going to be the murder of Hebrews in the desert after the Golden calf incident, but once I read up on it, I’m like “yes, there will be this too.”

The first scene I did was “This Land is Mine,” which isn’t part of the Exodus, but that’s how I knew I wanted the film to end, and that came about because I watched the [Paul Newman] movie “Exodus.” – I watched a ton of movies related to this, good and bad. There’s a bunch of movies on this theme. And [I learned of] “Exodus,” which is a very American Zionist film that I had somehow missed in my youth, that the soundtrack had lyrics written by the conservative Christian Pat Boone. I heard a version of that and learned it had been recorded many, many times by different artists throughout the ‘60s, which is a little before my time and it’s this Zionist anthem, so as soon as I heard it, that animation just appeared the moment I heard that song and I [thought] this is how my film is going to end.

A scene from Nina Paley's "Seder-Masochism"Because you’re looking at all these very scripture and sculpture throughout the ages, was it seeing how women are depicted throughout time that led you to go in a feminist direction with this?

That came at the end. When I started this film, the last thing I thought I was making was a feminist screed, but I realized if I had anything to say, it was about the goddess and when things are going really well, a film is making itself and just using me. [I may have been thinking]“What? Really? Goddess stuff? I’m so not interested in goddess stuff.” But that changed over time and in all the commentaries on Exodus that I read, the most compelling I found were feminist. There’s this book “When God Was a Woman” by Marilyn Stone, which is a very flawed book for sure, but I was very intrigued by her overall analysis, which is that Exodus was codifying the elimination of goddess worship. Goddess worship was very prevalent in the area and in fact prevalent all over the world and the stories that were written down was designed to eliminate that, so that’s why I put that in the golden calf scene and also the idea that the golden calf was Hathor, the cow goddess of Egypt. But two years ago, I had finished all of the musical numbers and I had half of a film, but I didn’t really know who the protagonist was because I didn’t really like Moses and I didn’t really like Yahweh. After doing a lot of thinking on it, I realized there was an invisible protagonist, which was the goddess and then to finish the film, I had to visualize the goddess.

Was it exciting to work in all these different forms of animation? Embroideramation, for instance.

Yeah, the embroaideramation was purely an aesthetic and technical exercise because we had this embroidery machine, so it’s like we can do animation with this, so okay! That was in collaboration with Theodore Grey and relied very much on his coding abilities. We determined what was possible with this embroidery machine and I made animation specifically for it because only a certain level of complexity and a certain amount of colors was possible. I had to think about the direction of the stitches and how it would look stitched, and [Theodore and I] worked back and forth together. I ended up giving him a series of vector frames and he coded the stitches and our machine stitched them and we ironed them and I hemmed miles of cotton fabric to make these matzo covers. I sewed them together with the surger, then we photographed them and I edited them and it was the most labor intensive thing I’ve ever done. But now we sell the matzo covers! So they exist, but they’re going fast.

A scene from Nina Paley's "Seder-Masochism"What’s it like getting to the finish line and putting it out into the world?

It’s already played more theaters at festivals than I thought it would, which I really noticed in this theater [during the Animation is Film Festival]. The sound quality is so high, I was like, “Oh, there’s some flaws in the sound,” which I couldn’t catch because I didn’t have the equipment, but I also didn’t worry about it because I thought it’s never going to be in theaters. And then it’s like, “Oh, now it’s in some theaters, I should fix the sound.” [laughs] I just don’t think I’ve been in a theater that had sound that good, but there’s ambient noise that you don’t hear if it’s on a normal speaker system.

But I’ve made my piece with the content. I’m just super impatient to get it out. It’s a trip. Life is weird, right? I’m a hermit making this thing and I’ve spent the last month not being a hermit and talking to people and having people see the film. It’s like people are giving me really delicious food – and I have to eat 100 pounds of it in an hour, so I know the food’s delicious, but it’s literally making me sick. So it’s a whole bunch of fantastic stuff happening so quickly, it’s excruciating. [laughs] That’s what it’s like.

“Seder-Masochism” will next play at the New York Jewish Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on January 13th and 14th. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.

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