Step aside ‘Prince of Egypt’, there’s a new flick about Passover in town, and it has a bone to pick with your patriarchal foundations!
This past weekend was the Ottawa International Animation Festival, and I had a blast! I saw so many different features and shorts, and I am dying to share my thoughts with all of you. I will post an overall review piece about the festival very soon, but I wanted to start with my personal favourite from the weekend, which is ‘Seder-Masochism’, a politically evocative interpretation of the Jewish family ritual Passover Seder, directed by Nina Paley.
I grew up going to a catholic school, so the extent of my knowledge of Exodus and the Passover is limited to what I saw in the movie ‘Prince of Egypt’. Now I’m not religiously inclined whatsoever, in fact I’m often a harsh critic of it. So you can imagine my delight in viewing a film such as this, that flips religious practices on their heads, and questions their patriarchal and misogynistic foundations!
Nina does a fantastic job at conveying this important part of Judaism, while also offering hilarious criticism. She uses a variety of mediums such as images of ancient female deities, paintings, embroidery, and clips of bombings and attacks in the middle east, along with a selection of song-and-dance numbers to bring the story to life.
There was one scene that really stood out to me, and I feel it deserves it’s own little tangent. I mentioned that Nina Paley used a variety of animation methods in this movie, and one of these was embroidery. I had never seen this done before, and I was so blown away that I had to know more about it. The technique she used is called “embroidermation”, and it’s animation made with embroidered images. Each panel is embroidered by hand, and then animated. For the piece in Seder-Masochism, originally released as a short movie called ‘ChadGadya’, 86 separate matzo covers were hand embroidered to create the 516 frames needed. Now, if you’re like me, thinking a great deal of computer manipulation goes into pulling this off, you’d be correct, however you can’t forget that each frame you see is a photograph of a real object, an object that was painstakingly embroidered. If you’re a nerd like me and want to learn more about this style of animation, and see the piece I’m raving about, you can go here.
I was lucky enough to attend the gala screening of this film, which meant that the director, Nina Paley, was there to answer questions from the audience and offer her insights on the film:
Audience Member: What made you decide to use the statues?
Paley: Desperation and switching software. I just wanted to get it done. I actually did not find the subject matter inspiring, personally, in fact it was very depressing actually and I’ve never had less of a spiritual experience in my life, trying to tell the story of Exodus. I did try, really, with an open heart and an open mind, and I was waiting to find some beautiful inspiration to come from it and it didn’t. So I culled together a film and showed it to people I know, and they told me it needs more Goddess. So I put some more Goddess in, but all these drawings I had done in Flash were not moving to Moho very well. Then I remembered that Moho can actually animate raster images, and I was like, “why am I redrawing these anyway? Why not animate the raster images that I worked from in the first place?”. This created a whole new style for the film and I think worked out quite well.
Audience Member: Was the conversation between God and the sacrificial goat all scripted, or was it mostly improvisation?
Paley: It wasn’t even improvisation. My dad was dying. That interview was done three months before he died. I was living in New York at the time, and I new I wanted to do something about Passover and I visited him in the hospital and I just wanted to talk to him. I didn’t even know how I was going to use it or if I would use it. What you hear is what we talked about, and I included what he loves to talk about which is that I need to get a bachelor’s degree and I need to make more money.
Audience Member: How was the copyright process this time compared to that of your last film?
Paley: ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ turned and radicalized me about copyright. I did get licenses for all the music I used in ‘Sita Sings the Blues’, it was a year long, insane process, in which I learned a lot about copyright, and how it works, and what it really is. After that film I just decided that whatever my next film is going to be, I am going to use whatever I want. I’m not going to let copyright be a consideration, I’m not going to censor myself more in the way that I’m taught to, and that every filmmaker or artist does. I’m just going to use whatever I want, whatever is going to make the film better, and I don’t care if it’s illegal, and that is the result. I’m not going to pay money this time. I paid 70,000$ with ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ in order to make it legal to share it for free. I think that all the music used in Seder-Masochism is fair use, but fair use is a legal grey area, and the only way you can really learn if something is fair use is if someone sues you and you defend it. But this is a piece of art, and once its festival premiers are done in late January I’m going to share it online.
*If you’re interested in watching ‘Sita Sings the Blues’, it’s available to watch online for free!*
Audience Member: Did your father approve?
Paley: I don’t know if my father approves or not. My father was actually a pretty cool guy, and really a brave man, but his attitude towards his daughters was “don’t do anything that would scare me”. We had a relationship filled with tension, which I wanted to be conveyed in this film.
Audience Member: Did you set out to make a feature?
Paley: While working on ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ I learned that people will pay more attention to a feature than a short. I don’t know why that is. Attention is limited, and shorts are shorter, yet people will spend an hour and a half of attention on something that is a feature. So yes, I wanted another feature. I wanted a big project that would ground me for several years and give me a central focus. From the start I knew I wanted to make a feature, but I didn’t really know what it was about, other than Passover, my father, and Exodus. While working on this project I really expected to find some profound meaning in those texts, because so many other people have. This isn’t what happened though, I was five years into it and I hadn’t found anything profound and meaningful to me. Where I did eventually find meaning was in the text yes, but it was the parts of the text that talked about all the religions that the Hebrews were ordered to destroy. I looked at prehistoric artifacts, and I imagined and explored what religion and spirituality was before patriarchy. We’ll never really know, but that idea inspires me, and that ultimately is what the movie became about.
Audience Member: I kind of sense that in the film. There’s all those old religions that Jewish scholars talk about, religions that existed before the Jewish religion. They say that Jewish religion actually had several other Gods in the beginning, it wasn’t just one. I kind of felt there was a bit of that in this film.
Paley: Oh yeah there’s more than a bit of that in there. That ultimately is the story of the film. There’s a list of books in the credits, one of them is The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner and When God was a Woman by Merlin Stone. People have been talking about these ideas for decades, and that was my main passion associated with the film. It really does flip everything on its head, these ideas of “What if we had a Goddess?” and “What if Priestesses were revered?”. It’s hard to even think that way but working on this challenged me to do that. Especially because I had to depict a Goddess, and all we really have are ancient artifacts We don’t know how they were used and we don’t really know how early religion was practiced. Our ties to what was there before patriarchy are broken, and any sort of Goddess worship that exists today is reinvented and recreated. I wanted some sort of Goddess deity and all I really had to go on were these pieces of art. There was a lot of mental heavy lifting required to do that.
Audience Member: Why did you incorporate so many different animation styles into the film?
Paley: Well it gets boring to look at if it all looks the same so I wanted to switch it up, make it more interesting to look at and work on, and I switched software from Flash to Moho. I also grew six years older while working on this film, so a lot of it is also economical, done in order to save a bit of time where I can.
*The responses from this question and answer period have been edited for clarity and length*
If you want to learn more about this film, you can check out the website here.
Info on embroidermation: http://mentalfloss.com/article/67133/embroidermation-animation-created-embroidery
Sita Sings the Blues: http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/