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Moses make-over by animator Nina Paley will have you grooving

Q & A with the animator

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Moses with fire

The Seder has droned on. The too-oft-repeated stories have ceased to spark the interest that they once did. Then, you get a glimpse of Nina Paley’s unique animated re-telling of the story of Moses, Seder-Masochism. Wow! Cool story, you think.

Paley matches the music and lyrics of contemporary songs to her Flash animation of the traditional Jewish story. You are immersed in the experience. Paley’s rendition then astutely scrutinizes aspects of the story that were passed over as the story became like old clothes in the closet.

In his fine overview Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that the cartoon comic is effective because it simplifies plot, setting, and emotions, leaving wide leeway for the viewer to imagine how they would shade the story with their own personality and history.

“Thus, when you look at a photo or a realistic drawing of a face—you see it as another face. But when you enter the world of the cartoon—you see yourself,” McCloud says. The very simplicity of a cartoon empowers the viewers to place themselves as players in the scene. The rhythm of the comic then accompanies contemporary life like a drum beat in a rock song.

Paley’s Moses is stripped of the high language of scripture and the burden of divine pontification. Consequently, he becomes to the audience a real person traveling through his story. The Bible becomes sheet music for lively Mosaic riffs of music and images. Paley’s highly personal take on the story is entertaining, even if it may be offensive to some. After all, the film is called “Seder-Masochism” because it is from the mind of a Jewish atheist, and the daughter of a Jewish atheist, seeking to understand the story behind the Passover holiday that her family still celebrated while she was growing up.

Not to say that Paley’s animation is deficient in detail. The artist has done her research and highlights nuances of the story itself, including whimsical nods to Egyptian art and the Egyptian pantheon.

Paley will be in New York City this Passover weekend to show and discuss her newest work-in-progress at 7:30 pm, April 21, the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village. This might be a good way to stock up conversational tidbits for the family rituals. Click here to buy tickets.

 

Paley researched the story by reading through the account of Moses as written in the Jewish Bible. Seeking to recall the liveliness of her own family’s Passover celebrations, Paley also sat in other peoples’ Seders while recording them.

The opening scene of Exodus finds the Hebrew people under the thumb of a new Egyptian king who does not remember the benefits that the Hebrew people had given to Egypt. Because the Hebrew population has begun to outnumber that of the Egyptians, the king wants to put the break on the speed of Hebrew reproduction. So, he throws the Hebrews into almost impossible construction projects for the Egyptians. He also orders that all sons of Hebrew women be killed as soon as they are born.

After giving birth to a son, one Hebrew woman hides him so that he will not be killed by Egyptian soldiers. When the boy is too big for her to hide in her own house, she makes a basket out of reeds, seals the boy inside, and floats the basket down the Nile River. The basket floats into the porch area of the Egyptian king’s daughter. She sees the baby and, though recognizing it as a Hebrew child, feels sorry for the helpless babe. She names the boy Moses and raises him as her own son.

After Moses has grown into a man, he leaves the palace to look at the Hebrews who are still slaving for the Egyptian king. Witnessing an Egyptian guard beating a Hebrew slave, Moses furiously attacks and kills the guard. Moses then has to flee Egypt and the wrath of the Egyptian king. He ends up living in a wilderness area for many years.

After having settled down with a pastoral community, God appears to Moses, now an old man, in a burning bush. He enlists Moses to head back to Egypt and demand the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. Paley’s film follows Moses’s trek back to Egypt and the challenges he poses to Pharaoh to free the Hebrews from slavery.

 

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Paley told A Journey, “I was surprised how many people have never been to a Seder, and I wanted to give them a taste. Not of a Seder—but of my Seder. The one that I had grown up with, the daughter of an atheist Jew.”

However, Paley also warns audiences that the film will not be a pat retelling of the traditional story. Instead, in the spirit of kibitzing, Paley examines and challenges the story with a deeply personal eye.

Paley’s first full-length film, Sita Sings the Blues, animated the Hindu story of the Ramayana. In the Hindu epic, a villainous king abducts Sita, the wife of the god Rama. The husband travels to rescue Sita. But when he takes her back, Rama questions whether her purity has remained intact during her captivity.

The film stirred quite a bit of controversy because Paley wove the story of Sita with her own experience of a husband turned cold. Wrestling with Sita’s story, Paley made a case for the universal experience of women who have been spurned. This was not a popular take among some Hindu traditionalists.

 

Click here to watch the entire film Sita Sings the Blues.

 

Q & A with Nina Paley

How did living in Brooklyn affect your art?

Moving to New York City was like visiting the mothership culturally. In Urbana, having parents who were born in New York, I saw things that I thought were quirks in my own family: the argumentative style, the sense of humor, weird little jokes, tiny little yiddishisms I didn’t know were Yiddish but my parents still used. When I got to New York, I thought, these people are familiar!

I didn’t know the arts community in New York, there were too many, and it was too big to have just one. I plugged in right away with other animators. I was asked to be a judge for a film contest and I was meeting people featured in a book I read when I was thirteen years old.

New York was pretty great for that. I moved back to Urbana…in 2012 my dad died, my mom was threatening to sell the house, and I was actually dating someone back in Urbana. I moved back to Urbana in order to occupy the house so that my mom couldn’t sell it and also to get away from New York for the first time in 10 years. And I stayed. I’ve been occupying mom’s house ever since. Though she’s since sold the house and so now the house I’m occupying is not the one I moved back to save!

Your Kickstarter proposal said, “Much of the draw of exploring Passover is that I was raised with it, it has informed my life and my approach to storytelling.” How has Passover affected your storytelling?

I was raised with kibitz and questions and arguing. I’ve known many people who don’t do Passover like that but many do. I come from the strain of American Ashkenazi where questions and making fun of something is scholarship. So we mix reverence and irreverence. I do not feel I need to be strictly reverent. Irreverence is not simple, not insulting; it’s how I engage the source.

What was your research process like for Seder-Masochism?

I began by looking at my own upbringing. My family celebrated Passover every year. My dad was a hardcore atheist, but he thought it was important to raise us with a cultural identity. We celebrated Passover because he thought it was a nice, fun holiday—which was hilarious when I read Exodus! But the holiday was fun! And the themes are fabulous. Liberation from slavery, and the way you seek liberation today.

I had never actually read Exodus myself, so [first] I read through that, and then through all the books of Moses. And it was nothing like the story I had been told as a child. There are a lot more details in the Bible account.

I tried to understand, what is this book as literature? Because it doesn’t make sense, reading through it. I read commentaries trying to understand it.

What do you mean, “It doesn’t make sense?”

Exodus is very similar to the Ramayana in how it doesn’t make sense. In the Ramayana, Rama is supposed to be great. His sons sing, “Rama is great, Rama is good,” and he is supposed to be the perfect man—and the narrative shows a man who very much isn’t. In Exodus you have the same issue, where Yahweh is supposed to be great, loving, merciful. Then you read it and you think, holy shit!

It doesn’t make sense to me today, to my understanding of a loving, forgiving god. That’s different, so I asked what life would have been like then. Living with cattle, and killing them—and the bloodshed is described in great detail.

I can’t imagine it--I’m not capable of imagining it. All I have is the story and interpretations of how it came to be.

My favorite commentary that I read -- it’s not reliable as science -- is called When God Was a Woman. I enjoyed the angle. It looks at the transition from a long line of goddess worship to singular male figureheads. Where did they all go? Exodus is a document of where they all went. All this stuff about smashing idols and Asherah poles—that was another thing I wasn’t expecting, the vicious attack of other religions in the area.

The amount of detail and research in your art style, especially for the Egyptian sections, is amazing.

I had to do that. I had to find a visual style for that where there is no visual art of—that’s ancient Hebrew art. There was an injunction against graven images. Contrast that with the richness of Egyptian and Assyrian, and I guess Mesopotamian, art. I drew from those to develop the style of this movie.

It made me very sad, it’s so beautiful and all gone. What we were supposed to be smashing—and what ISIS is smashing now!

What was your experience at the Seders that you recorded for Seder-Masochism?

The Seder portion of the film will be shorter than I had originally planned. I originally had thought, watching this movie will be like sitting at a Seder. I was surprised how many people have never been to a Seder and I wanted to give them a taste. Not of a Seder—but of my Seder. The one that I had grown up with, the daughter of an atheist Jew.

Also questions of identity. Who gets to be a Jew, what does it mean to be a Jew, and how Jewish am I?  Am I even still Jewish if I’m atheist?

I recorded Seders in Urbana and in New York. The ones I attended were bland American Seders. They were boring. The problem with recording is that people know that they’re being recorded and become careful with what they say.

One of the more interesting ones was in Urbana, with my mom’s friend, after my dad died. It was all older women, and all of their husbands were gone now. So, they were responsible for reading the Seder. It was the most nontraditional because the people who knew the material were women, and there were some circles where women weren’t supposed to even be there for the Seder.

There have been Seders I’ve been to where people really got into the issue of freedom. It’s cool to ask yourself especially that day, how am I enslaved? How are others not free?

Then, I sat in with friends of family who were unquestioningly pro-Israel. They didn’t question the sort of things we questioned in my family. The last one was with a bunch of free-culture people, who were pretty exhausted. Seders tend to be really long.

What do you want people to think when they walk away from Seder-Masochism?

I have no idea! I’m not trying to change people’s thoughts. I’m exploring my own thoughts. What’s fun is the way people interpret [the movie], and I can’t control it. I can’t predict. My part is to make art and find in the stories what they mean to me.

The story has a lot of people mentioned that have become more visible to me. For example, the Egyptians--those bad, bad Egyptians. I put a different spin on them. ‘Exodus’ could refer to the exodus, being led out of Egypt, led out of slavery. It could also mean the Egyptian firstborns being led out of this life—by the same God, we’re told, who led the Hebrews out. [The Egyptians] have their own religions and their own afterlife. I wanted to show that.

Who were these people [the Hebrews] were fighting against, to not be corrupted by? I’m interested in those people! I’m interested in the stiff-necked people, who were disobedient, who were killed by the Levites for worshipping the golden calf. Most did not do as they were told, and I would have been one of them. Those are the ones I identify with. My connection is with the disobedient.

What was the biggest problem you faced in this project?

It definitely was flawed. Having to switch computer programs. And just the fact that I was really hoping, had expectations of Exodus that were not met. I was hoping for a profound connection that I did not find, to explore the religion of my father, who is an atheist, more than I am, and now I understand why.

What was something interesting you found in the conversation with your dad about Seder?

There was this really great moment when I was trying to find common ground with him over Passover and he found ways to tell me that I should be making more money and how I’m a disappointment. It captures my sad relationship with Dad.

Here I find many comparisons between Sita and this project. Sita was exploring God as husband. Seder is God as father. My relationship with Dad is less than ideal. Interestingly, I came to embrace atheism more. We’re told that it’s incredibly important to have a profound relationship with dad. Maybe that’s bullshit too.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? A radical feminist?

I use the term Radical Feminism to distinguish a line of thought from Liberal Feminism. To quote this overly academic explanation, Liberal Feminism "is the variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure."

Radical Feminism questions the structure itself, especially gender roles. Libfems tend to celebrate gender roles while radfems criticize them.

When I was a kid, "feminism" meant women could do anything they wanted, gender roles be damned. But then mainstream feminism changed, and groups like N.O.W. simply conflated "women" with the same gender roles I found oppressive - especially motherhood.

I'm also interested in your thoughts on goddess religions. Is a return to goddess worship a solution/answer to patriarchal [Abrahamic] religions, or does it also limit female identity by emphasizing fertility and womanhood instead of non-gender-specific peoplehood?

I don't see goddess-worship as any real solution. But regarding "fertility": when biological human fertility is worshiped, that's bad for women, especially me (as someone with strong environmental concerns who has never wanted kids). But there are other kinds of fertility, particularly cultural or memetic fertility. As an artist I am very fertile, and I devote my life to reproduction - of cultural life, not human biology. I used to feel conflicted admiring the beautiful goddess art of ancient history, but to me now it symbolizes all kinds of fertility, including and especially the kinds that don't destroy the planet. Those kinds of fertility belong to men and women equally.

Golden Calf

 

Can you tell me about the event at the IFC?

It will be a benefit viewing at IFC. I will be speaking about the content of the film. People have questions! Most people like the film. Some say I’m a really terrible person.

The Seder project confirmed a lot of issues around Sita, identity politics. It bothered people that I wasn’t Indian or Hindu and was working with the Ramayana. There’s this idea that you’re entitled if you’re a certain ethnicity or religion. I got a lot of hate mail from Hindu nationalists. They thought I was Christian for some reason, and said, you wouldn’t write about Jesus or the Bible this way! Or they said, you wouldn’t write about Islam this way. The story of Moses is in the Quran, as it is in the Jewish scriptures. Now, I am Jewish, so I decided to do the story of Exodus. I thought, if you think this is going to be acceptable, just you wait!

It’s the difference between being called a colonizer and a traitor. But people will always have opinions. Haters gonna hate.

What will make you feel that the showing successful?

If we fill all 114 seats.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Paley will be in New York City this Passover weekend to show and discuss her newest work-in-progress at 7:30 pm, April 21, the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village. This might be a good way to stock up conversational tidbits for the family rituals. Click here to buy tickets

 

Also check out Nina Paley's Blog.

 

Moses Goes Down by Nina Paley. Exodus 3-7 featuring Moses & the Burning Bush. Music by Louis Armstrong & Sy Oliver’s Orchestra.

 

Nina Paley’s The Second Plague (Frogs).

 

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