REVIEW: In praise of a stiff-necked people

The Jewish Torah has been translated and reproduced more times than any other set of stories in human existence, but its most recent interpretation may be deemed too controversial to be screened in public, even in the twenty-first century.

In 2013, Jewish-American animator Nina Paley took on the task of animating the Exodus story after her three-minute movie “This Land In Mine” became ridiculously popular, with one version garnering nearly nine million views to date. That initial viral video took crooner Pat Boone’s 1960 song of the same name, a tribute to Zionism, and thoroughly pilloried it. As Boone declares in earnest that God gave him dominion over the Land of Israel, Paley illustrates the human cost that this idea has entailed for the people that actually live on the land: endless war.

“Seder-Masochism”, Paley’s new animated full-length feature about the Book of Exodus, saw its public premiere last week at a film festival in Annecy, France, and it is scheduled to screen at the Animix Animation Festival in Tel Aviv later this summer. But once it finishes the festival circuit, getting the film in front of additional audiences may prove to be an uphill battle.

“It’s a movie that probably can’t have a commercial release, due to the music issues,” Paley told the Dimona Dispatch on the eve of the film’s world premiere. With the exception of one number she penned herself, Seder-Masochism’s soundtrack is an eclectic collection of twentieth-century music, featuring artists as diverse as Louis Armstrong and Oingo Boingo. Paley hasn’t sought out the copyright owners to ask for permission to use them in the film – on point of principle.

As she explained in her 2015 TEDx talk in Maastricht, the Netherlands, Paley believes that a society restricting the free flow of culture is the equivalent of a human inhibiting their own neural activity – effectively choosing to be brain damaged. Paley wants copyright law abolished altogether; and until that happens, she consciously ignores it, trying to create art as if it doesn’t even exist.

“I don’t know how illegal it is,” says Paley of Seder-Masochism, which took three years of work over a six-year period to make. “It may be legal. It may be legal under the doctrine of Fair Use. I don’t know.”

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U.S. law permits copyrighted works to be sampled by other composers, but simply invoking the phrase ‘Fair Use’ does not guarantee that a judge will agree the new work meets the definition of the doctrine.

“The problem with Fair Use is that there’s nothing about Fair Use that’s set in stone. Fair use is something that you assert, and then you’re sued, and then you use it in court. There’s no clear rules about Fair Use, it’s very subjective. And the movie industry, all of it, is super-conservative, and doesn’t want to take any risks,” says Paley. “There are no distributors who will say, Yeah, we’ll stand up for Fair Use for you.”

Most other independent artists, often forced to work on shoestring budgets, don’t even consider re-purposing popular music in own their work. But Paley wasn’t deterred.

“The idea of distributing a film, or putting a film out into the world, that isn’t legal, was very enticing for me. That was a big motivator for me to make the film,” she says.

But challenging Paley’s right to make Seder-Masochism are not only the faceless corporations that trade artist copyrights with closed fists, as they would with any other currency. Paley must also contend with other arbiters of who is and isn’t permitted to use and reuse elements of culture: loyal members of the group most associated with the sacred text.

Paley’s last full-length feature ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ (2008) was based on the Ramayana, a Hindu holy book, and though the animated movie earned her accolades, it also attracted harsh criticism – and sometimes vicious threats – from hardcore Hindu nationalists.

“If you’re of a certain ethnicity, you’re only allowed to do cultural work that has to do with your genetic legacy,” Paley explains. That accepted axiom didn’t work in her favor for Sita, but with Seder-Masochism, she can now use what she jokingly refers to as her ‘Jew card’. “I really enjoyed Passover as a kid,” says Paley. “I have good memories of it.”

Being born to a Jewish family that celebrated the Passover Seder gives her a pass with those that police identity politics. But conservative elements in the Jewish community are unlikely to let Seder-Masochism slide – not because it strays too far from the Biblical text, but rather, because it adheres too closely to it.

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Unlike most modern renditions of the Exodus, Paley’s illustrated ode to the Passover Seder is both beautiful and beastly. Just because the film is animated, that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for audiences of all ages: to storyboard Seder-Masochism, Paley returned to the original narrative in the Torah, and brought back all the bloody bits.

“Tons of Exodus is about slaughtering animals. That is one bloodthirsty god there,” notes Paley. “And they throw blood on each other. There’s all these rules for where you scatter blood, on which corners.”

What’s worse, she says, is that the blood being shed in the Bible isn’t only limited to non-human animals. According to the Torah text, Yahweh orders his followers to commit what can only be understood as massacres, both to non-Jewish nations, and to Israelites accused of adopting some of their customs.

These Biblical tales of bloodbath are excised from almost all modern accounts of the Exodus story. Today it is framed as the tale of a tribe who once suffered under slavery, but are now autonomous, because an all-powerful father-god intervened in their favor. According to this reading, the Passover holiday is distilled down to a simple festival of freedom.

“It’s pretty sweet that you have a whole holiday devoted to this,” says Paley. “The whole slavery-to-freedom narrative, that we’re taught on Passover. And it’s a lovely story. It just turns out that when I read the actual book, that’s not really the story of the book. It’s not slavery to freedom, it’s slavery to slaughtering each other.”

That blunt message is unlikely to endear her to religious traditionalists. “Most people, when they talk about [Exodus], they just focus on the nice stuff, and sort of gloss over the dark stuff,” says Paley. “But I could not suppress what was in there.”

To be sure, Paley has lovingly animated all the iconic scenes from the Passover story, from the ten plagues to the burning bush, potable water drawn from a stone, and pedestrians crossing the Red Sea. But Paley also took pains to include in Seder-Masochism the characters she believes were purposefully erased from the Biblical account: the Hebrew Goddesses.

Though the concept of a Hebrew Goddess may come as a surprise to some, it is the name of a book by Raphael Patai, the first person to earn a doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the subject of much academic research. In recent decades, archaeological evidence has confirmed what the Torah text itself alludes to: in the first Temple period, it was common for Israelites to keep feminine figurines in their own homes, and to pray to the goddesses they represented.

Later, in the time of Ezra, Israelite ultra-nationalists managed to impose their separatist ideas on the rest of the people. From then onward, the Jewish religion would only allow for monotheism. Goddess-worship was all but snuffed out.

“It really got rid of all goddesses. I realized that actual Hebrews, the actual people that were there at the time, were still worshipping goddesses. Hence, being called a stiff-necked people. Hence, you have this continually angry and disappointed God who just can’t get his chosen people to follow his rules.”

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With the #MeToo movement making waves across the country, and in Jewish communities as well, Paley’s homage to a matriarchal Hebrew culture that once was is especially timely.

“I may be hitting a nerve with the ancient goddess stuff. I think people in the West are very deprived of any goddess in their spirituality, because goddesses are forbidden in the old testament. And there’s a primal human need for that,” says Paley. “When you consider 51% of humanity is female, to have the only conception permitted to be male, it’s not really working for a lot of people, and we are left with this hunger for the divine female.”

Will Seder-Masochism soon become a cult hit and trigger a feminist reformation in the Jewish religion? Paley says she isn’t trying to return female deities to their former stations in the Israelite pantheon. But she notes that Seder-Masochism has already led to fruitful dialogue in her own life.

“I’m starting to have more interesting conversations with Jews than I’ve ever had,” Paley reports. “These were the most high-quality and interesting and fun conversations I’d had with Jews, ever.”

Now that her Passover opus complete, Paley can finally see herself in the seminal story. “The whole ‘stiff-necked people’ thing,” she says, in reference to God admonishing the Israelites for supposed religious infidelities. “It’s like, “Oh! I don’t identify with the pious Jews! I identify with the stiff-necked people! They’re my people! I’m descended from them!”

Paley breaks into hearty laughter. “The ones who were disobedient to God, and the Old Testament is full of them. You can’t get rid of those disobedient Jews.”

But for American Jews to even learn of her disobedience to begin with, Seder-Masochism will still need to find a distributor that will stand by it, despite the controversy it courts.

When the film finishes its festival circuit, Paley plans to try posting the movie to Vimeo, a mid-size video sharing site more friendly to Fair Use doctrine than the firm’s gargantuan rival, YouTube. Vimeo has already hosted “This Land Is Mine” for five years, but whether it will follow the same policy for Seder-Masochism – which samples not one, but dozens of songs – is still uncertain.

And if Vimeo rejects the film, for fear of lawsuits? Paley breaks out into chuckles. “My hope is that people will share it peer-to-peer, and any other conceivable way. This was part of the experiment of the film,” she says. “I’m relinquishing control of it.”

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