'Seder-Masochism': Film Review | Annecy 2018
'Sita Sings the Blues' director and animator Nina Paley premiered her latest feature in competition at Annecy.
Why is Seder-Masochism different from all other Passover movies?
For one, this second animated feature from one-woman-band Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) is a completely irreverent, occasionally hilarious and politically evocative look at the most famous of Jewish holidays. Secondly, it's got to be the only Passover movie that features a singing Moses — not to mention a singing Pharaoh and a bunch of dancing Egyptians and Jews — belting out classics by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Led Zeppelin to Gloria Gaynor to the chanteuse Dalida. All that's missing is The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian," but that's probably way too obvious.
Premiering in competition at Annecy, this homemade kosher delight should find its way to plenty of other festivals, whether Jewish-themed or otherwise. Theatrical exhibition may be trickier given music rights issues, as there were no publishing or recording credits listed on the print viewed. But considering how Paley released Sita using a unique self-distribution model (with some help from GKIDS), it’s possible that, one way or another, some viewers will sit down for a crazy Seder that would have its rightful place on Adult Swim.
A musical comedy, tripped-out cartoon and insolent reading of the Book of Exodus all in one, Seder-Masochism defies definition. At the same time, Paley rather adeptly, and often humorously, turns the Passover story on its head, questioning how something created by a "white male patriarchy" has resonated across generations in ways that are often violent, misogynistic and rather senseless. To prove her point, she cuts from giddy animation scenes to footage of bombings in the Middle East (possibly committed by the Israeli Defense Forces), shots of ISIS destroying religious icons in Iraq or Syria and a video of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Pass the matzo.
Such darker moments are rare, however, in a movie that mostly has lots of fun depicting the plight of Moses and his people, with the different stages of the Exodus — the burning bush, the Ten Commandments, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea — transformed into Busby Berkeley-style song-and-dance numbers scored to such hits as "I Will Survive," "Helter Skelter" and the hippie classic "Free to Be You and Me." This is definitely the only Passover movie that includes an animated Seder plate with revolving shank bone and charoset, as well as a sequence of mass assembly-line circumcisions.
To guide the action, Paley uses both a 1950s audio explanation of a Seder that’s lip-synced to a painting of The Last Supper, and a recording of an interview with her late father, Hiram, about their family's Jewish culture. The latter provides some of the film's funniest moments, with the clearly unreligious — yet rather traditional — Hiram trying, and mostly failing, to explain the Passover story to his daughter. Paley animates her father as God and herself as a sacrificial goat — a depiction that takes on added meaning when the former begins questioning the director's career choices and lack of financial stability. At that point, the image of God morphs into a $1 bill.
Beyond its historical and political jabs, Seder-Masochism is mostly about how male-dominated Passover (quick: name one woman in Exodus) and Judaism in general are, and why it's high time a female perspective be added. To make that sentiment heard loud and clear, Paley includes a witty original song in the last act titled "God Is Male," while bookending her movie with swirling animations of goddesses and statues — ranging from the Venus of Willendorf to Devi — joining forces in a mystical choreography. Despite the nuttiness of the whole project (this film is not for everyone), we’re ultimately left with an understanding of what Passover is and what it isn't, or rather, what it could be. Paley has managed to have her unleavened bread and eat it, too.
Director-screenwriter-editor-animator: Nina Paley
Producer: Producer X
Sound design: Greg Sextro
Venue: Annecy International Animation Film Festival (Competition)