Martha's Vineyard International Film Festival this weekend
The Martha's Vineyard International Film Festival's four-day cinematic tour of the world starts tonight, Thursday, Sept. 10, and runs through Sunday, Sept. 13.
First stop is India, via "Sita Sings the Blues." This magical, animated film tells a modern version of the classic Indian epic, the Ramayana. "Sita" generated controversy among some Hindus, who, depending on their perspective, either find the film disrespectful or complain that its white Western creator is racist.
"There has been plenty of feedback," filmmaker Nina Paley said in a phone conversation. "Much less negative than positive...and I get it both from the left and the right." She will be attending the 8 pm screening at the Capawock Theatre along with the film's sound designer, Greg Sextro.
"Sita Sings the Blues" is the animator's first full-length film, and it parallels events in her own life. "I followed my husband to India in 2002," she said of her Indian husband, Dave, who wound up abandoning her. He is echoed in the film by a cartoon character of the same name.
"I read the story first in a comic book," Ms. Paley said. "I was shocked by how similar the story was to my own life. I had never encountered a heroine like Sita."
In the Ramayana, Sita and Rama are gods reincarnated as humans. Rama goes hunting and when he returns he finds that Sita has been abducted by the demon-king Ravana. Convinced that Sita is no longer pure, Rama banishes her.
The filmmaker read every version of the Ramayana story she could get her hands on, including DVDs of the 80s TV version, which she says has become the canon.
Ms. Paley modernizes the story through a variety of innovative cinematic techniques. "I like playing with forms," she said. The movie demonstrates that fact.
Shadow puppets in the foreground carry on conversations about events like audience members, debating the behavior of Rama and Sita. Since each puppet's voice is that of an Indian who comes from a part of the country with different versions of the Ramayana, the discussions lend liveliness and texture to the movie version.
Sometimes Sita is a Betty Boop-style figure. Ms. Paley incorporates classic songs by 20s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. In other parts, characters appear as collages or figures from imitation mughal paintings.
Rotoscoping, which turns photographs into cartoon versions, is also employed, producing a feast of color and variety that reflects the richness of the Ramayana myth itself.
Most 35 mm independent films win a small release are and then quickly forgotten. By offering "Sita Sings the Blues" without charge on the Internet, Ms. Paley has made sure that the film is never lost. It is the first viable feature film to be distributed in this manner.
"I'm not wealthy, but I've become a free culture advocate," Ms. Paley said. "The audience basically advertises the film. If they like it, they often buy the DVD. It's a complete paradigm shift."
Although Ms. Paley borrowed a neighbor's Super 8 camera when she was 12 or 13 and played around with animation, she didn't start an animation career until she was 30 years old, about 10 years ago. Before then, she worked as a newspaper cartoonist and was syndicated in 50 newspapers. She says she turned to animation after burning out on print cartoons.
Ms. Paley's return to Martha's Vineyard will be the first since she was 12. "I remember riding my bike there," she said. Now she says she thinks of it as a mysterious, exotic island.
Highlights of the four days of films from 18 nations include another animated feature, "Waltz With Bashir." Playing Friday afternoon, this Oscar-nominated Israeli film is a riveting account of a soldier remembering the first Israeli-Lebanon war. Islander Paul Karasik will introduce "Waltz With Bashir."
Detlef Gericke-Schonhagen, director of the Boston Goethe Institut, will introduce "Cherry Blossoms," about a German widower who visits Japan, Friday evening.
Also on Friday, Mindy Todd, host of The Point on WCAI, will introduce "The Pope's Toilet," a comedy at the Katharine Cornell Theatre about His Eminence's visit to a small Uruguayan town in 1988. At the Capawock Theatre, the Japan Society of Boston's president, Peter Grilli, will introduce "Departures," which won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
On Saturday, director Amin Matalqa will answer questions about his film, "Captain Abu Raed," being shown at the Capawock Theatre. In it a janitor finds a pilot's hat and pretends to be a flier.
Actor Zenobia Shroff, who stars in "Little Zizou," will attend the screening of that film as a special guest on Saturday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
Also introducing films will be animator Bill Plympton, writer Geraldine Brooks, comic Marty Nadler and Cape Cod Times film critic Tim Miller. Liz Witham and Ken Wentworth of Film-Truth Productions will present "Think Globally, Shoot Locally," a compendium of local filmmakers' work.
"Sita Sings the Blues" Sept. 10 at 8 pm at the Capawock Theatre, and again Sunday, Sept. 13, at 12 noon at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
For complete listings of screening and events, consult the MVIFF special section in the September 3 Martha's Vineyard Times, or go to mvfilmfest.com.
Brooks Robards writes on theater, art, film, and books for The Martha's Vineyard Times.