The Arty Semite

How Nina Paley Made 'This Land Is Mine' Viral

By Roz Warren

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Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up, “This Land Is Mine,“ Nina Paley’s brilliant, succinct and devastating three minute animated history of the conflict, played out to Andy William’s performance of “The Exodus Song,” goes viral.

Given recent events, Paley’s film has gotten plenty of views since she first posted it online in October 2012 — 10 million, so far, with more viewers every day.

The “Exodus song,“ explains Paley on her website, “was the sound track of American Zionism in the 1960s and ‘70s,” and “expressed Jewish entitlement to Israel.”

“God gave this land to me,“ proclaim the lyrics, penned by, of all people, Pat Boone. The problem? A succession of peoples have felt that God gave this land to them. “By putting the song in the mouth of every warring party,” Paley observes, “I’m critiquing the original song.”

The film, visually beautiful and darkly funny, shows a succession of warriors enthusiastically attacking and vanquishing each other with increasingly sophisticated weaponry, in an escalating conflict that, Paley predicts, will not end well for anyone.

“This Land” will eventually become part of “Seder-Masochism,“ a larger work-in-progress about Passover.

Paley, 46, is Jewish, but not religious. Nor is she a Zionist.

“I am a Jew because I’m descended from a long line of Jews,” she told the Forward, “and because even as atheists my family retained some Jewish cultural quirks. But I am not a Zionist. I don’t need a ‘homeland‘ in Israel and I don’t care if my ‘Jewish identity’ is upheld and assimilation resisted; in fact assimilation is part of my ‘Jewish identity,’ something I’m proud of.”

Paley’s father, although raised in a very religious household, had become a “hard core atheist” by the time Nina was growing up. “But he was adamant that his children have a strong Jewish identity.”

What did this mean in practice?

“It meant we observed Passover,” Paley said. “We had a Seder every year.” Other than that, she received little religious instruction. But Paley identified as Jewish. Of course, as she points out, Jewish identity in central Illinois, where she grew up, often comes down to this: “I’m not a Christian.”

As for Zionism? “I already had a homeland,” Paley said. “Urbana, Illinois.”

Paley isn’t new to religious source material, or to controversy. Her first feature length animated film, “Sita Sings the Blues,” a unique retelling of the Ramayana, a sacred Hindu text, brought Paley not only countless awards and accolades (including a rave review from Roger Ebert) but hate mail and death threats.

The response to “This Land,” says Paley, has been far more civil. And while the film has been criticized both as the anti-Zionist work of a self-hating Jew, and as Zionist propaganda, viewer response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It articulates an increasingly common feeling of frustration,” she said. “When I was growing up, American Jews were really energized about Israel. The movie ‘Exodus’ provided a big boost to American Zionism. There was a rush of idealistic energy.” And that was with good reason. “The idea of a Jewish State was an amazing fantasy.”

But the reality, as Paley’s film makes clear, is considerably more sobering.

Paley’s father would, no doubt, be proud of his daughter; “This Land” is, unmistakably, the work of a strong and unique Jewish voice. And while Paley, as she continues to explore her own Jewish identity, is aware that her point of view might ruffle some feathers, she writes on her website: “I hope my Great Zayde Zelman wouldn’t be too disappointed in me.”

Paley’s many Jewish fans would argue that, indeed, her work would give him cause to be proud.


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