Underground Film Journal

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Feature Film Online: Sita Sings The Blues

By Mike Everleth ⋅ January 3, 2010

Animator Nina Paley has placed her entire feature film Sita Sings the Blues online for viewing. That’s it embedded above in really good quality on YouTube, which sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. It’s extremely crisp looking so that the incredibly eye-catching animation really grabs you.

Paley’s situation with her film has been a big story in 2009, particularly in the past month or so. Here’s the deal: Paley crafted the film — which combines her own personal story of her painful divorce with the ancient Indian story of Sita and Rama, two gods who try to exist as human beings — around songs sung by Annette Hanshaw, a jazz singer who was popular in the ’20s.

However, in trying to clear the copyrights to the composition of those songs, Paley ran into a big problem: Namely that the copyright holders wanted Paley to pay $50,000 to include them in the film. Now, here’s where the confusion — for me anyway — sets in.

Paley has set up a “free” distribution model for her film, e.g. offering the film for free viewing via YouTube embeds and other video sharing outlets. Then, she makes money selling DVD versions of the film and other merchandise based on the film; plus, she asks for donations on her website. She’s also had some public screenings from which she’s made money. That’s all clear.

The confusion: On Paley’s FAQ page on the official Sita Sings the Blues website, she writes that she took out that $50,000 loan in order to “decriminalize the film, just to make it a little bit safer to give the film away for free.” Yet, in a presentation Paley gave on her unique distribution model, she claims that she’s in complete compliance on copyright and “paid through the nose for it.” If she’s in “complete compliance,” why is the film only “a little bit safer” to distribute? And in this interview, she makes it sound like she’s under constant threat of a lawsuit over her distributing the film.

Anyway, music clearance issues interfering — and sometimes outright blocking — the release of an underground film isn’t a new topic, but what’s new and unusual about this one is Paley’s very public discussion about the subject. In the past, underground films featuring uncleared music just went into “black market” tours where the filmmakers tried to keep the screenings under the radar. Sometimes these music issues are over money and sometimes they’re over other issues.

For example, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a biopic on the singer using Barbie dolls and directed by Todd Haynes, has never had a proper release because Richard Carpenter has refused to grant licenses to the Carpenters’ music to the filmmaker since he disagrees with the way he and his sister are portrayed in the film.

Usually, though, it’s all about money. Expensive music licensing has kept both Jeff Krulik and John Heyn’s Heavy Metal Parking Lot — which features songs by Judas Priest — and Trent Harris’ The Beaver Trilogy — which features songs by Olivia Newton John and Barry Manilow — on the underground film circuit. (However, both of these films are available on DVD via the filmmakers. Just click the film titles above.) I also know Ric Shore has struggled with music issues over his CBGB documentary Punking Out, but he’s selling copies himself, too.

Most recent articles I’ve read about Paley and Sita Sings the Blues don’t go into this history, but instead focus on how she’s forging a new distribution path for future filmmakers to follow. A recent Time article on the notion of “free” film distribution says that Paley has made a “net profit” of $55,000 on her strategy.

So, is that the future for films with uncleared music issues to keep them out of the underground? Pay the hefty fees, distribute for “free” and build an audience willing to pay to help out?

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