Watch Seder-Masochism, Nina Paley’s Animated, Feminist Take on the Passover Holiday: The Animated Feature Film Is Free and in the Public Domain

Seder-Masochism, copy­right abo­li­tion­ist Nina Paley’s lat­est ani­mat­ed release, is guar­an­teed to ruf­fle feath­ers in cer­tain quar­ters, though the last laugh belongs to this trick­ster artist, who shares writ­ing cred­it with ”God, Moses or a series of patri­ar­chal males, depend­ing on who you ask.”

Bypass­ing a com­mer­cial release in favor of the pub­lic domain goes a long way toward inoc­u­lat­ing the film and its cre­ator against expen­sive rights issues that could arise from the star-stud­ded sound­track.

It also lets the air out of any affront­ed par­ties’ cam­paigns for mass box office boy­cotts.

“The crit­i­cism seems equal­ly divid­ed between peo­ple that say I’m a Zion­ist and peo­ple that say I’m an anti-Zion­ist,” Paley says of This Land Is Mine, below, a stun­ning sequence of trib­al and inter-trib­al car­nage, mem­o­rably set to Ernest Gold’s theme for the 1960 epic Paul New­man vehi­cle, Exo­dus.

Released as a stand-alone short, This Land Is Mine has become the most viewed of Paley’s works. She finds the oppos­ing camps’ equal out­cry encour­ag­ing, proof that she’s doing “some­thing right.”

More both­er­some has been Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Gen­der Stud­ies Mimi Thi Nguyen’s social media push to brand the film­mak­er as trans­pho­bic. (Paley, no fan of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, states that her “crime was, months ear­li­er, shar­ing on Face­book the fol­low­ing lyric: ‘If a per­son has a penis he’s a man.’”) Nguyen’s actions result­ed in the fem­i­nist film’s ouster from sev­er­al venues and fes­ti­vals, includ­ing Ebert­fest in Paley’s home­town and a women’s film fes­ti­val in Bel­gium.

What would the ancient fer­til­i­ty god­dess­es pop­u­lat­ing both art his­to­ry and Seder-Masochism have to say about that devel­op­ment?

In Seder-Masochism, these god­dess fig­ures, whom Paley ear­li­er trans­formed into a series of free down­load­able GIFs, offer a most­ly silent rebuke to those who refuse to acknowl­edge any con­cep­tion of the divine exist­ing out­side patri­ar­chal tra­di­tion.

In the case of Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor Nguyen, per­haps the god­dess­es would err on the side of diplo­ma­cy (and the First Amend­ment), fram­ing the dust-up as just one more rea­son the pub­lic should be glad the pro­jec­t’s lodged in the pub­lic domain. Any­one with access to the Inter­net and a desire to see the film will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do so. Called out, maybe. Shut down, nev­er.

The god­dess­es sup­ply a depth of mean­ing to this large­ly com­ic under­tak­ing. Their ample curves inform many of the pat­terns that give motion to the ani­mat­ed cutouts.

Paley also gets a lot of mileage from repli­cat­ing super­nu­mer­ary char­ac­ters until they march with ant-like pur­pose or bedaz­zle in Bus­by Berke­ley-style spec­ta­cles. Not since Paul Mazursky’s Tem­pest have goats loomed so large in cin­e­mat­ic chore­og­ra­phy…

Paley’s use of music is anoth­er source of abid­ing plea­sure. She casts a wide net—punk, dis­co, Bul­gar­i­an folk, the Bea­t­les, Free to Be You and Me—again, fram­ing her choic­es as par­o­dy. “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” accom­pa­nies the sev­enth plague of Egypt (don’t both­er look­ing it up. It’s hail.) Ringo Starr’s famous “Hel­ter Skel­ter” aside (“I’ve got blis­ters on my fin­gers!”) boils down to an apt choice for plague num­ber six. (If you have to think about it…)

The ele­ments of the Seder plate are list­ed to the strains of “Tijua­na Taxi” because… well, who doesn’t love Herb Alpert and the Tijua­na Brass?

Paley’s own reli­gious back­ground is of obvi­ous inter­est here, and as with her pre­vi­ous fea­ture, Sita Sings the Blues—also in the pub­lic domain—the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal ele­ment is irre­sistible. A 2011 audio record­ing pro­vides the excuse to por­tray her father, Hiram, who died the year after the inter­view was con­duct­ed, as a Mon­ty Python-esque God. The senior Paley was raised in an obser­vant Jew­ish house­hold, but lost faith as a young man. An athe­ist who want­ed his chil­dren to know some­thing of their her­itage, Passover was the one Jew­ish hol­i­day he con­tin­ued to cel­e­brate. (He also for­bade the kids from par­tic­i­pat­ing in any sort of sec­u­lar Christ­mas activ­i­ties.)

A wist­ful God with the com­plex­ion of a dol­lar bill, Hiram is at times sur­round­ed by put­ti, in the form of his par­ents, his con­tentious Uncle Her­schel, and his own sweet younger self.

For these scenes, Paley por­trays her­self as a spir­it­ed “sac­ri­fi­cial goat.” This char­ac­ter finds an echo at film’s end, when “Chad Gadya,” the tra­di­tion­al Passover tune that brings the annu­al seder to a rol­lick­ing con­clu­sion, is brought to life using embroi­der­ma­tion, a form Paley may or may not have invent­ed.

Per­haps Paley’s most sub­ver­sive joke is choos­ing Jesus, as depict­ed in Juan de Juanes’ 1652 paint­ing, The Last Sup­per, to deliv­er an edu­ca­tion­al blow-by-blow of Passover rit­u­al.

Actu­al­ly, much like Audrey Hep­burn in My Fair Lady and Natal­ie Wood in West Side Sto­ry, Jesus was ghost-voiced by anoth­er performer—Barry Gray, nar­ra­tor of the mid­cen­tu­ry edu­ca­tion­al record­ing The Moishe Oysh­er Seder.

As you may have gleaned, Paley, despite the clean ele­gance of her ani­mat­ed line, is a max­i­mal­ist. There’s some­thing for every­one (except­ing, of course, Mimi Thi Nguyen)—a gleam­ing gold­en idol, a ball bounc­ing above hiero­glyph­ic lyrics, actu­al footage of atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted in a state of reli­gious fer­vor, Moses’ broth­er Aaron—a fig­ure who’s often shoved to the side­lines, if not left out­right on the cut­ting room floor.

We leave you with Paley’s prayer to her Muse, found freely shared on her web­site:

Our Idea

Which art in the Ether

That can­not be named;

Thy Vision come

Thy Will be done

On Earth, as it is in Abstrac­tion.

Give us this day our dai­ly Spark

And for­give us our crit­i­cisms

As we for­give those who cri­tique against us;

And lead us not into stag­na­tion

But deliv­er us from Ego;

For Thine is the Vision

And the Pow­er

And the Glo­ry for­ev­er.


Watch Seder-Masochism in its entire­ty up top, or down­load it here. Pur­chase the com­pan­ion book here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sita Sings the Blues Now on YouTube

Cel­e­brate the Women’s March with 24 God­dess GIFs Cre­at­ed by Ani­ma­tor Nina Paley: They’re Free to Down­load and Remix

Watch Nina Paley’s “Embroi­der­ma­tion,” a New, Stun­ning­ly Labor-Inten­sive Form of Ani­ma­tion

Intro­duc­tion to the Old Tes­ta­ment: A Free Yale Course 

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain, this April. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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