Kicked to the curb by a beloved husband, many women would turn off the phone, grab the Häagen-Dazs and crawl under the covers. But Nina Paley channeled her own sorrow and rage into a gloriously singular, hilarious and tragic, animated musical feature film — Sita Sings  the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Every Told. Screened at 150 film festivals, Sita won 35 international awards and even earned a rave review from Roger Ebert.  “I was enchanted,” he wrote about screening Sita. “I was swept away. I was smiling from one end of the film to the other. It was astonishingly original.”

Reeling from her break-up (he told her the marriage was over by email!), Paley found consolation in the torch songs of ’20s blues vocalist Annette Hanshaw. Having lived in India, Paley was familiar with the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic about Rama and his wife, Sita. She was inspired to explore the story of her own marital meltdown by combining it with a retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view, using Hanshaw’s songs to evoke Sita’s sorrow and bewilderment at the failure of her marriage to Rama. Paley also interviewed a group of her Indian friends about the Ramayana, transforming them into a “Greek chorus” of Indonesian shadow puppets. These unscripted conversations with their (sometimes faulty and often conflicting) knowledge of the saga,  illuminated by Paley‘s witty visuals, bring humor and perspective to the otherwise tragic love story. Supported in part by a Guggenheim fellowship, Paley spent three years pulling it all together on a series of laptops in her home office. The result is an inspired mix of styles and voices that come together through sheer imaginative brilliance and force of creative will to form a thoroughly entertaining film.

It wasn’t easy. Paley had created syndicated cartoon strips (“Nina’s Adventures” at left, “Fluff” and “The Hots“) and many popular animated shorts.  But Sita was an entirely different order of magnitude. The obstacles she encountered included a bedbug infestation so dire she was eventually forced to abandon her home (and home office). Even more challenging than the plague of bedbugs was the “unreasonable, insane and Kafka-esque” process she went through in an attempt to obtain permission to use the Hanshaw recordings that are the heart of Sita.  The frustration, insane expense and ultimate futility of this ordeal turned Paley into a “copyright abolitionist.”

Paley chose to release Sita under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. She also joined, where she is now artist-in-residence.  (If Paley has her way, future Ninas won’t have to move heaven and earth and pay a small army of lawyers to be able to share the work of other creators.)  Paley is delighted when her own work is copied and shared, believing that “copying is an act of love.” With the support of an Andy Warhol Foundation grant, she has produced Minute Memes, a series of animated shorts about intellectual freedom. (For a quick look at Paley’s take on copyright, check out the supremely catchy musical cartoon Copying Is Not Theft.)

Paley’s fans have recently welcomed her return to cartooning. Last year, she began a hilarious and thought-provoking new daily strip, “Mimi and Eunice” in which two wise-cracking cartoon figures discuss life, art, relationships and culture. The first “Mimi and Eunice” collection, “Misinformation Wants to Be Free” is available through Paley has made all of her early work available as well, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. This means that you can enjoy all of Nina’s work, including Sita Sings the Blues at no cost.  (It’s all available at www.ninapaleycom.)

Giving her work away has proved to be a working business model for Paley. “The Internet provides a way for audiences to support artists directly,” she says. “Download Sita for free. If you like it, use the donation button to send me a donation. It really works.”

Paley’s work has always been controversial, from her animated short The Stork, which addressed overpopulation by showing a serene natural landscape being bombarded with far too many “bundles of joy”  to her current quest to destroy copyright as we know it. She has received both hate mail and death threats from people who are offended by Sita. (Although it’s the concept of Sita that annoys them, Paley says. Few of the haters have actually screened the film.)  “My subject matter is controversial,” she says. “But I’ve learned that the greater the risks in art, the greater the rewards.”

At 42, Paley is comfortable with both controversy and uncertainty. The words “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re doing it right” are posted over her computer. Her career has been a series of creative leaps into the unknown that have ultimately paid off.  Asked what life is like at 40, she says, “It’s awesome.” Not only has she hit her stride creatively, but she also enjoys the respect that her achievements and maturity have brought. “When I was in my twenties,” she says, “I’d express an opinion and people would just look at me and say, ‘How old are you?’ ”

Now people pay attention to her and organizations worldwide pay her substantial fees to share her expertise. She isn’t crazy about all the traveling, but she loves “meeting all the cool people out there,” she says. One of the only down sides to her current success, Paley says, is she meets “more really cool people than I can actually become friends with.”

Paley’s work is also helping shape the cool people of the next generation. Although Paley never wanted children herself, she was pleased to learn that many parents share Sita with their kids. “It wasn’t designed for kids,” she says. But knowing how “hugely mind-forming” the movies we watch (and endlessly rewatch) as children are, she’s happy her work can serve this function. Could Sita Sings the Blues become the next Wizard of Oz? It seems unlikely. But given Paley’s unpredictable career, anything is possible.


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