EbertFest: “Sita Sings The Blues”

EbertFest was originally called “The Overlooked Film Festival.” It may have ditched the name but it retains its purpose to give a proper audience and attention to films that may have passed beneath the average filmgoer’s radar.

“Sita Sings The Blues” is the only film in the festival that I had already seen. Hell, you’re probably a nerd: I bet you’ve seen it, too. It’s famous. Cartoonist Nina Paley handbuilt this animated feature on her desktop computer and belatedly discovered that it’s probably not a good idea to make certain pieces of 1920’s jazz music an integral part of the story before you figure out if they’re actually still under copyright.

As part of the adventure of bringing “Sita” to audiences, Nina learned about the vaqrious alternatives to copyright and traditional distribution. Result: “Nina isn’t my movie,” as she said during the post-film Q&A. “It’s mine and it’s yours and it’s everybody’s.”

She did indeed secure a license to the music (the birdlike singing of Annette Hanshaw) but she took a leap that few professionals would have made: she released it under a Creative Commons Sharealike license. Anybody can host the movie. Anybody can show the movie. Anybody can make their own edits, subtitles, and variants of it.

About a half an hour ago, I introduced myself to Ms. Paley at dinner and thanked her for being the first penguin to jump off the ice floe. Other creators are watching closely and her experiences (to this point, 100% positive) will give the rest of the community the courage to take the plunge themselves.

The movie itself is like a wall tapestry come to life. The experience of seeing it here in the Virginia Theater underscores the workability of Nina’s “Give it away” mentality. Yup, I saw it on the smallest of small screens — my iPhone — for free. And I enjoyed the film so much that I would indeed have paid twelve dollars for the opportunity to see it on a huge screen in a real theater with a live audience.

EbertFest showed it on HD video. I might have worried that the simple shapes and lines of Nina’s animation would have seemed grotesque when blown up so huge. To the contrary: the strength and power of such an austere design was even more emphatically in evidence.

I don’t really need to tell you how spiffy this flick is. I can just give you the link and send you on your way.

Instead, a few comments on the controversy barring its traditional release. I was pretty annoyed by the outrage. Lots of anti-copyright activists tried to paint this as The Man preventing an artist from getting her work in front of an audience.

Okay, well, you know what? Nina Paley is an experienced professional creator. If even a lunkhead like me chose to license music instead of just grabbing something to use as my intro and outtro.

I feel as though if I were outraged at the insistence of the copyright holders to get a license fee for their music in this case, I’d have to be just as outraged by a streetcorner musician trying to get Dreamworks to pay up for using her songs in their latest $200,000,000 release.

I think there are plenty of problems with copyright and I think that it’s a damned shame when a creative work winds up locked in copyright hell.

But nothing changes my opinion that copyright is a good concept. Every creator should get to choose what happens with their creationws. Take copyright awaqy from me and a lot of my motivation to bring brand-new things to an audience goes with it.

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