Seder Masochism: Nina Paley’s Irreverent Take on Passover/Easter Rituals

Nina Paley released her new animated film Seder Masochism on the internet in January 2019. Like her stellar Sita Sings the Blues (released in 2008), Seder Masochism uses numerous animation styles including ancient Egyptian stylizations and even embroidery. Seder Masochism is a satirical retelling of the Jewish Haggadah (traditionally recited every Passover at a meal called the “Seder”) along with the Book of Exodus (from the Old Testament) and the story of The Last Supper (from the New Testament). Paley emphasizes the story of Moses in conflict with ancient Goddess religions from various pantheons. Paley animated numerous songs to tell her story ranging from Louis Armstrong’s “Go Down Moses” to The Beatles’ “Helter-Skelter.”

I had a chance to meet with Paley one-on-one when she was in Chicago in mid-February.

Elisa Shoenberger: Why did you decide to make Seder Masochism?

Nina Paley: After and during Sita Sings the Blues, there were all these identity politics-based critiques. There were people who didn’t look at the film but all they knew was that a white woman—who they assumed was Christian—was doing something based on the Ramayana (Editor’s Note: The Ramayana is a significant Hindu epic story about Prince Rama.)

I was not supposed to do that. They went on long blathering essays about how colonialist that is. Some people accused my collaborators of being self-hating Hindus. And I was like, “I know that rhetoric; my people came up with that rhetoric.”

Before I was thinking of doing another film,  I was just dealing with this ideology. Eventually that had something to do with my decision to do something about Judaism. It was like: “You really think that if I did something about my supposed heritage, that would be okay? You’re not gonna like it, you’ll probably like it even less.” That was one reason.

My father was also dying and I had a strained relationship with my father and sought to understand him. I thought that would be an interesting entry point to explore my father more.

Shoenberger:  Could you please talk about how you started with these small chapters, such as “This Land is Mine?”

Paley: It was definitely groping in the dark. I started with Passover. But I’d never read the Biblical Book of Exodus. I read it and I decided I had to depict Exodus. Exodus is a narrative mess, but a much greater narrative mess is the Haggadah. (Editor’s Note: A Haggadah is a guide for the Passover Seder–an annual Jewish ritual feast to commemorate events in the Book of Exodus. There are many different Hagaddahs in use today, for every variation on Jewish tradition, but as depicted by Paley, there are common core elements that all Haggadahs must include.)

The Book of Exodus does have narrative in it. It’s just that the narrative is maybe two pages long and then the rest of it is just all this wacky stuff about building the tabernacle. Then in the Moses story, there’s a narrative there. I decided the film was going to be structured on the order of the Seder. My critique of Seder Masochism is that the Seder is based on a narratively incoherent structure. I think it would be a more watchable film if I hadn’t done that.

I think the structure works the more you know, but a lot of being an artist is making things knowable to people that don’t know things. It is what it is. It’s just the film is this way, but I know that it’s less successful because of that structure. Maybe it’s not a problem.

Shoenberger: Didn’t we all grew up with Charlton Heston as Moses in the ’50s movie The Ten Commandments?

Paley: It’s very much an interpretation of Exodus. All the stories and movies about Exodus have Moses as the protagonist, the hero. I couldn’t do that. I didn’t relate to him at all. A lot of the journey of discovery of me making this film was what is this film actually about? Or who is the protagonist? It’s not Moses. It’s not the Hebrew people. It’s not Aaron. God knows it’s not Miriam. Who was it? I eventually realized: “It’s the Goddess.” It’s all of these things that they’re against. It’s the negative image in Exodus. It took me a really long time to figure that out.

Shoenberger: There’s a lot of animation of music in both of these movies. The film had so many musical styles. What made you kind of want to meld these songs into your movies?

Paley: Sita Sings the Blues practically made itself. I was merely a vessel for it. All of that stuff just came to me. With Seder Masochism, it was more like I just wanted a project; I wanted something to do to ground my life. I knew I was going to animate to music. That’s just what I do. It’s the way that I think. The big difference is with Seder Masochism is that I decided long beforehand that I was going to completely ignore copyright and just use any music that aided the story. I was only going to approach it as an artist, not a lawyer.

Shoenberger: You use a lot of different animation styles in your films. I was struck by your animation of the thread.

Paley: Embroider-mation! It was because I had this whole other hobby while I was burned out of animation. After I finished Sita, I wanted to do something with my hands. I got into quilting. I got completely obsessed with quilting to the point where I bought machines to automate it. Embroider-mation came from that. I was dating Theodore Gray at the time, who’s a computer programmer among other things. He convinced me to buy this 10-thread embroidery machine and promised me if I bought it and let him play with it, he would help me do embroidered animation with it, which was something I really wanted to do. I just didn’t have the coding chops to do it. Figuring out how to make animation for the embroidery machine was a collaborative process and that was the most labor-intensive project I’ve ever done.

But it was purely a technical pursuit and I chose “Chad Gadya” (the song that typically ends the Passover Seder) as a subject matter, because as long as I’m doing this wacky technical thing, I want some way of putting it in my feature film.

Thanks to Nina Paley for taking the time to talk to me at FF2. If you want to see her film, check it out here.

© Elisa Shoenberger (4/18/19) FF2 Media LLC



All images on this page were downloaded from Nina Paley’s Seder Masochism website:

1.) Featured Image: Nina (pictured as the little goat from the song “Chad Gadya”) learns how Jews celebrate the Passover at the annual Seder.

2.) In the climatic moment of the story of the Exodus, Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea so that the Jews can flee from Egypt.

3.) Men aghast as women are transformed by the power of the Goddess.

4.) Jesus with his apostles at the Last Supper. Although many people know that Easter is always celebrated the same week as Passover, they may not know the reason. The Last Supper was actually a Seder. Jesus and his early followers were all Jews. They went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The day after their seder (an event now known as The Last Supper) Jesus was arrested and crucified. Paley doesn’t stop to explain, but her narrative makes this relationship clear to her audience.

Editor’s Note: A companion article about Nina’s strong opinions on copyright will be posted next week.

Tags: Nina Paley, Seder Masochism

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