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Stuff for the Teen Age, 24 Frames per Second
Sita Sings the Blues: A Groundbreaking Film For Teens, Adults, and Just About Everyone
I first learned about the animated film Sita Sings the Blues when it was featured in the New York International Children's Film Festival (Since I know you're wondering, I'll tell you that I got on their mailing list originally because of my deep and abiding love for the short films of Wallace and Gromit). Anyway, since I'm a fan of animated films, especially films that I can enjoy and also recommend to my teen patrons, I decided to see this film. And my goodness, it is a wonder to behold! It's a feast for the ears as well as the eyes.
Sita Sings the Blues is a retold story from the ancient Hindu epic The Ramayana about the hero Rama and his faithful wife Sita, and it is retold in several ways. Filmmaker Nina Paley uses several different styles of animation in this film, an exciting mix of "old" and "new" styles that will captivate the eyes. The story is also told in several ways: through three modern narrators who discuss (and sometimes argue about) the original story as the film unfolds, and through a series of songs that were originally recorded by an American jazz singer named Annette Hanshaw in the 1920s. These songs are used to express Sita's innermost emotions as she struggles with her relationship with her husband.
No, I'm not kidding, and yes, it really works well in this film.
Adult audiences might be familiar with this technique if they've seen TV and film productions like The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven, or even Six Feet Under that incorporated the use of older recorded songs. It's definitely an unusual technique the first time you hear it (Wait, why are these characters suddenly bursting into song? And why are they lip-synching to someone else's voice singing that song?) But I'm telling you, when you hear Annette Hanshaw's voice coming out of Sita's mouth as she (they?) sing "Mean To Me," on the one hand it will be weird but on the other hand it will make perfect sense.
This was a very personal project for Nina Paley, who was the writer / director / animator / producer of this film. She interwove her own personal story with Sita's, so while most of the film is about Sita's relationship with her husband Rama, there are several interludes in which we see Nina's own relationship with her husband rise and fall. Nina took an old story about Rama, in which his wife Sita was a minor character, and plucked Sita out of her husband's story to make her a star in her own right. And she also gave Sita that unique voice that was old, new, and amazing all at once.
Unfortunately for Nina but fortunately for us, the incorporation of Annette Hanshaw's voice into this film led to some difficult legal issues involving copyrights. You can read more about it on the website that Nina created for the film, but the short version of the longer story is this: rather than let this film stay locked up and fade into obscurity, she has offered the world creative commons "Share Alike" rights to this movie instead. That means that you (and we) are free to share this film with audiences of our own. We would love for you to check out a DVD copy of Sita Sings the Blues from our library system, of course (because for library staff, circulation statistics = happiness). But if you have some money to spare and would like to help out a filmmaker who went into a lot of debt creating this film and then signed most of her rights away, check out her website to see what you can do. Hey, you could always check out a copy of the film for yourself and then buy a copy for a friend. That way, everyone will be happy!