free culture on 35mm

I had the good fortune last night to see Sita Sings the Blues on honest-to-goodness film at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. I had heard about the movie a while ago; director Nina Paley offered her seven-year project up for free in many forms on the Internet. She writes:

I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.

You don’t need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues.

Certainly, Sita is a reflection on what shared culture means. Every faith seems to have “the virtuous woman,” the one who is exceedling pure and loyal and often makes great sacrifices for the sake of the family. In the Hindu epic the Ramayana, Sita is that kind of heroine, a paradigm of what womanhood and being a wife means.

Her image is pervasive, and for those of us who have grown up both in and outside of Indian culture, it’s really problematic as well. She was the wife of Rama, an extremely popular king-deity, an incarnation of Vishnu, the perfect man and perfect son. Paley’s remix of the story, incorparting uncertainties, and simultaneously romanticizing and de-romanticizing Sita’s womanhood, is a breath of fresh air.

And while Paley’s film and how she has released it raises a lot of big questions about film distribution in the digital age, it begs the larger question, who owns Sita’s story? Who gets to decide its lessons?

If you follow go to the embedded YouTube video’s page, posted by World Film Festival of Bangkok, you get a feel for the debate. The comments range from, “It is, simply put, glorious,” to “How can a person who has so much reverence to Ram & Sita can keep silent on this. Why did not she make any movie on Jesus and his wife Mary Magdalene? Will the Church allow that?”

You can download the film from the Sita Sings the Blues website, or even watch the whole thing on YouTube if you don’t mind the buffering. But there’s nothing like thinking about shared cultures in a space that represents shared culture. Catch it on a big screen if you can.