INTERVIEW: Nina Paley on ‘Seder-Masochism,’ censorship, and her fight for a free culture

Katherine M. Acosta speaks with Nina Paley about her film, “Seder-Masochism,” her fight against copyright law, and trans activist efforts to de-platform her.

Still from ‘Seder-Masochism’

“It’s scary here. There’s really legitimate threats happening. They’re saying I’m a white supremacist and a eugenicist, and that the community needs to protect itself. They’re very angry, and they are very aggressive.”

Award-winning filmmaker Nina Paley is speaking to me from her home in Urbana, Illinois ahead of the May 8 screening of her latest animated feature, Seder-Masochism, at the Virginia Theatre in nearby Champaign. The free culture activist and artist in residence at QuestionCopyright.org has had two earlier scheduled screenings in Urbana cancelled.

Seder-Masochism is Nina’s witty and incisive retelling of the Exodus story — this time including the suppression of goddess religion. Using animated images of ancient goddess sculptures, vivid two-dimensional original artwork, and an eclectic musical mix, Nina’s version defies convention. The Hollywood Reporter describes the film as “a musical comedy, tripped-out cartoon, and insolent reading of the Book of Exodus all in one.”

But the controversy over screenings is not about the film. Nina turned her critical eye and cheeky attitude towards transgender ideology and that has some trans activists enraged.

“They just keep escalating the accusations against me,” Nina says. “They’re posing me as a threat; [saying] that I actually want to kill trans people. It’s no joke.”

I talked to Nina about Seder-Masochism, censorship, and social control in April.

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Katherine M Acosta: You were raised a secular Jew, although your family celebrated the seder at Passover. How did you get interested in pre-patriarchal goddess religions and iconography?

Nina Paley: The film itself brought me to the prehistoric goddess images. I initially set out to just tell the Passover story. I read various translations of Exodus, and countless interpretations, among them Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman. Although Stone’s “Aryan Invasion” theory is dubious, her assessment of Exodus as propaganda to seal goddess-worship out of religious practice was both plausible and compelling. It made more sense to me than any other interpretation, so I went with it, representing YHWH as excessively male, with a phallic Mount Horeb/Sinai, and the golden calf as a variation of Hathor, the Egyptian cow goddess.

When the Exodus sections were done, I had half a movie and no idea what the point was. Surely Moses wasn’t my protagonist; he was awful. Eventually it became clear to me the protagonist was the Great Mother Herself, in the form of the religions Exodus was written to wipe out. So much of Exodus is about smashing idols and opposing neighbouring cultures. That’s the goddess: She was the idol to be smashed and the “corruption” Hebrews were so set against.

KA: You interviewed your father before he died about what seder meant to him and why he celebrated it (although otherwise he raised his children as secular Jews). How were you inspired to cast your dad as the father god? Did he know that would be his role when you recorded that interview?

NP: I didn’t know how I would use the interview with my father; I just knew I wanted to get his voice before he died. I recorded him in a hospital room, a few months before his death. Several years passed before I finally animated to that audio.

I knew I wanted to depict him as “God the father.” Originally I wanted to use an assortment of paintings of the Judeo-Christian “God,” but it was remarkably difficult to find such images at high enough resolution. We’re all familiar with Michelangelo’s God from the Sistine Chapel, but very few images of those paintings are available at sufficient resolution for close-ups of His face. I eventually gave up on the paintings and created my own God-the-father from scratch. I left the “skin” of his face empty, to be filled with other images. The first fill I tried was the dollar bill, and this worked so perfectly I kept it for the whole thing.

KA: The contrast between the masculine and feminine religious traditions in the film is striking. The imagery when Moses is up the mountain getting the Ten Commandments and the people are returning to their earlier female-centred religious tradition is lush and abundant. When they are following Moses to the Promised Land, they are in a literal desert, hungry and thirsty, eventually fed by manna — an unnatural substance that may not even be tasty.

How do these two religious orientations shape our consciousness and society?

Still from ‘Seder-Masochism’

NP: The Great Mother is no longer a religious orientation — she was usurped by Abrahamism. She continues in our subconscious, not in proper religion. Erich Neumann’s classic (if leaden) book, The Great Mother, details Her life in symbols, in the tradition of Carl Jung. We still find Her in the Statue of Liberty, Blind Justice, “Lady Luck,” and other symbols; Catholics may find Her in Mother Mary and the female saints. Outside of Abrahamism, the goddess persists as Shakti, for example. But all major religions, including Catholicism and Hinduism, are patriarchal today.

A lot of people say patriarchy comes from and is influenced by religion, but I don’t think so. I think patriarchy is part and parcel of agriculture and property. Patriarchal religions arose to meet the needs of their times. Since the establishment of Hebrew identity, humans have only gotten more propertarian. If it hadn’t been Abrahamism, some other patriarchal monotheism would have dominated (there were a few earlier contenders in Egypt and Persia). We can criticize Abrahamism all we want, but it’s not the cause of female oppression, just another symptom of it.

KA: Seder-Masochism has been described by reviewers as “Monty Pythonesque,” reminiscent of Busby Berkeley (one example — the opening scene of Moses and his tap dancing goats), and (dare I say) Michael Moore. I’m thinking here of your ending sequence, “This Land is Mine,” where the soaring theme of the 1960 film Exodus accompanies bloody images of various ethnic groups warring over the Levant through the centuries. It reminded me of Bowling for Columbine, where Michael Moore uses Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” with images of U.S. military interventions around the world.

Who or what would you say are your cinematic influences?

NP: My biggest influence has to be The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, which was broadcast on local television at least once a year when I was growing up, and which I watched religiously. I also watched Monty Python, and Terry Gilliam’s animation was surely an influence. Also our local PBS channel showed a weekly program of obscure animated shorts, mostly from Europe. The other stations showed classic American short cartoons, like Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny; some of those were brilliant and influential, like “What’s Opera Doc?” When I was 12 or 13 I saw Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo, an animated parody of Disney’s Fantasia that exceeded it artistically and blew my young mind.

Beyond those, pretty much everything I’ve ever seen influences me. Most of my influences I can’t name consciously. If someone can identify an influence in my work, they’re probably right, even if I don’t know its name or consciously remember it. Culture is like that.

KA: You’re a free culture activist and copyright abolitionist, and you’ve put that into practice by releasing your two animated features — Sita Sings the Blues and Seder-Masochism — for free online.

Of Sita, you wrote, “From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes. That’s true of all culture. I don’t create in a vacuum.”

In your TED talk, “Copyright is Brain Damage,” you made the point that copyrighted material gets into our heads whether we want it to or not. Because of copyright law, you said, we live in a regime where information can go in, but it can’t go out. You attempted to free yourself from “permission culture” when you made Seder-Masochism.

How did that affect your creative process, to have that switch in thinking, and consciously try to get away from permission culture?

NP: Obviously, the music in Seder-Masochism is more audacious than Sita Sings the Blues, where I had just one singer, and the music was all from the mid- to late 1920s, so it should have been in the public domain. Had there not been retroactive copyright extensions, which are morally dubious, this all would have been in the public domain.

Whereas with Seder-Masochism my approach was, I am not going to pay any consideration to copyright whatsoever; I am just going to use the music that works best for the story.

KA: I’m just thinking about how different the workflow must feel. When I was doing my own film, people would say, “Oh, you should use this Pink Floyd song here!” And I’m like, “Are you kidding? I can’t license a Pink Floyd song!” You shut down that creative process, whereas I would think that it would be so much more interactive if you feel, “Ooh, this is a great song!” And then using that song triggers something else.

NP: Well, sure, absolutely. Especially if you’re making a “normal” movie. I don’t want to make a normal film. I’m never going to do that. It’s too miserable. You have to pay lawyers and listen to the lawyers, and the lawyers are dictating what the film is. Yeah, it’s much more freeing. Much more satisfying. It’s art rather than product.

I have thought a lot about my passion for free culture and what has become my passion for women’s liberation or whatever you call what I’m struggling for now.

A saying we have at QuestionCopyright.org (a U.S.-based non-profit organization dedicated to expanding the range of acceptable public debate about copyright), is you can do whatever you want with your copies, and I can do whatever I want with my copies. There’s this idea that a copyright holder should control what other people can do with their copies. And we’re like, “No! You do not get to dictate what other people do with their copies.”

Free culture and things like sex and pronoun usage are connected. Go ahead and identify any way you want. But you don’t get to dictate how other people identify you.  So they’re both really about the sovereignty of the mind.

People have this idea with copyright that if you make a copy without someone’s permission that you are harming that person. Or you’re stealing from that person.

Likewise, with identity, people seem to think that if a man is using “she” pronouns, and I don’t use those pronouns, because I use sex-based pronouns, that somehow I’m harming him. Or I’m preventing him from identifying as he wants. I’m adamant that he is free to identify as he wants. But we’re also all free to identify things how we perceive them.

But that level of autonomy is perceived as a real threat by both copyright absolutists and genderists.

KA: The copyright thing I just see as capitalism. Every single bit of anything will be owned privately, and the owner will try to make as much money from it as they can.

NP: Ah, but they don’t make as much money as they can! That’s the interesting thing. It’s about control; it’s not about money. Because these copyright holders don’t make any money when they suppress a film. They don’t make any money by inhibiting your creativity. All that happens is that you don’t use the song they claim to own.

I spent a year on the festival circuit with Sita talking to other filmmakers, and they always change their music [because they can’t afford to license their original choices]. None of the filmmakers magically got big piles of money to throw at copyright holders. What they’re doing is, they’re controlling culture. They’re controlling filmmakers. They’re controlling other people.

KA: Do you see this as part of a larger trend toward fascism?

NP: Yes! Any large technological society is about surveillance and control. It’s capitalism in our system and it could be quasi-communism in some other system.  Different factions are grabbing for power and they want control over other people. Control over speech. Control over thought. Copyright is one mechanism for that.

What’s startling to me is having this epiphany about copyright and going through it and feeling so free for so long. Now I’m slammed up against this other kind of censorship that I did not expect.

KA: When I think about what theme runs through your work and life, I realize, it’s just getting free. Whether free culture advocacy, copyright abolition, or even the themes of your films. You said Sita was about God the husband and Seder about God the father — that seems to be the consuming passion. How can people really be free? How can I get free?

NP: I think you’re right! [laughs] I never thought of it that way, but I think you’re right.  And it’s interesting, with God the father and God the husband, it’s specifically free from patriarchy.

But, yeah, these kinds of control over other people, centralized control, technology-assisted control, I associate those with patriarchy. I also associate them with overpopulation and complex societies.

KA: What started your trouble with trans activists, a couple of years ago, was sharing a Facebook post with a song saying, “If a person has a penis, he’s a man.” Is that right?

NP: Yep. Connie Bryson’s song. The brilliant songwriter Connie Bryson [who co-wrote with Nina lyrics to the “God Is Male” song in Seder Masochism].

KA: And so, I have to ask: What did you think would happen? Were you really surprised by the reaction that you got?

NP: Yes! I was surprised. I thought people wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t think they would completely lose their minds! I thought people would think, “Well, that’s not very nice because I think women can have penises, too!” And I figured, okay, fine. And that’s as far as it would go.

Whole mobs forming to purge me off of Facebook? I wasn’t expecting that. I guess I was naive. Ten years ago, this would not have happened.

Also, I think I was a little bit confused because I have been hanging out with trans people, and had friends and lovers who were trans, since before a lot of these people were born. And at that time, I still thought that trans activism had something to do with the actual trans people that I knew. It doesn’t! It doesn’t have anything to do with actual trans people. The transsexuals that I know are detested by trans activists.

KA: Is there some resistance now, do you feel, starting to grow, in response to the de-platforming? Or, no? It’s hard for me to tell.

NP: I don’t think there’s a resistance to it, no. There are groups of people that are appalled by it. But I don’t think there’s what you would call a movement of resistance to it. It’s new enough to most people that they’re not at the point of resisting it yet. They haven’t encountered it yet, and when they do, they’re going to succumb. I don’t know when people will get tired enough that they will start resisting in this country.

KA: In your hometown, Urbana, Illinois, you were de-platformed twice — once at the Arcadia coffee shop and once at The Art Theater.’

NP: Arcadia actually approached me and asked if I would do an event with them, and I said, “Sure.” As soon as they publicized the event on Facebook, Professor Mimi Thi Nguyen, the interim chair of the gender and women’s studies department at University of Illinois Urbana posted, “She’s a transphobe! I will never come to your events again.”  When somebody said, “What are you talking about?” she wrote, “I’m chair of gender and women’s studies; I know what I’m talking about.” That’s her famous line.

It was Nguyen and some other people, and I thought, “They are not going to shut down this screening because of these lunatic rantings. There are always lunatics ranting.  And they shut it down. I couldn’t believe it. It was heartbreaking. I thought this would be catnip for the bullies responsible for this. Once they get the taste of human flesh, they don’t stop.

KA: And Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy tried to arrange a screening at The Art Theater.

NP: He signed a contract and made the deposit. The executive director happens to have a degree or a minor in gender and women’s studies from the University of Illinois, and of course she can’t let this film by this transphobic monster play in her theatre. So she banned it.

KA: The good news is that the screening May 8 at the Virginia Theatre is going ahead. And you’re having a panel discussion to follow — what is the focus of that?

NP: We’re going to talk about the actual film. Imagine that!

Part of it is examining Middle East policy, war, and the mythology that supports a lot of U.S. foreign wars. Seder-Masochism is an anti-war film, among other things. It is not anti-Zionist, but it is critical of Zionism.

I’m Jewish, but Jewish identity is not a big thing for me. I’m wary of identity in general. I don’t try to assert identity. I think all identities are delusional, including my own.

It really has been something to have this film about Passover, which we really wanted to show during Passover, be censored. To be blacklisted. This was really upsetting to me.

KA: Why are you having a GoFundMe for this screening?

NP: Because it costs a lot of money to rent the Virginia. It holds 1,500 people. It’s an A-list venue for this town. Also, the Virginia is a union employer, so everyone that works there is in a union. And that’s good; we support that. It’s just a more expensive undertaking than any other alternatives we tried. And we’re also paying for security.

KA: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about, that you want to comment on?

NA: I want to say something about the panel, “Does Sex Matter? Gender Identity vs Material Reality,” that I did at the Urbana Free Library last March. I organized the panel after the We Need to Talk events in Washington, DC last January. One of those was at the DC library, and I think it was Meghan Murphy who said, “In the United States you are so fortunate to have these libraries that are dedicated to speech.”

And I thought, I’m going to go to my library and set something up. I met Corinna Cohn [a male who identifies as transsexual and is critical of trans activism], in DC. I didn’t realize that Corrina lived in Indianapolis. And then Corinna knew Carey Callahan [a detransitioned woman], and that’s how that happened.

What [trans activists] did was reserve the exact same room that I had reserved a month earlier for right up to the time that my event was scheduled to be held. And then they advertised the event on Facebook as being at the same time. The idea that they had was to get all the people to come to the library and then be moved out of the room by my event, to make it seem as though I was pushing them out of the library.

The threats were actually very real at the library. Library staff spent a week running around managing it and actually moving the counter event to another part of the library.  They did a great job. Everybody was working at the library that day. All these people that normally weren’t there, monitoring the hell out of it.

The problem is that I think it really angered the people trying to shut me down. Every time they try to shut me down, and I don’t get shut down, they get angrier and more aggressive.

But it’s so great when women come to these things. Midwestern women. The fact that people drove in — that you drove in — that Chicago women drove in… That is amazing to me. So heartening and inspiring when we get together for events like that. It’s so awesome when actual feminists get together.

Katherine M. Acosta is a feminist and sociologist turned filmmaker based in Madison, Wisconsin. Divided We Fall is her documentary of the historic 2011 protests in Madison.

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