The Blog

Are Artists Free to Tell Their Own Stories?

Hundreds of film professionals and fans are gathering in Burkina Faso this week for Fespaco - the Pan-African Film Festival. Started in 1969, the biannual event is one of the biggest cultural events in Africa and attracts directors, writers and critics from across the continent and beyond.

Hundreds of film professionals and fans are gathering in Burkina Faso this week for Fespaco - the Pan-African Film Festival. Started in 1969, the biannual event is one of the biggest cultural events in Africa and attracts directors, writers and critics from across the continent and beyond.

Meanwhile, many eyes will be on Hollywood on Sunday as the winners of the 85th Academy Awards are announced. Amongst the nominees for Best Picture are two Hollywood productions which have sparked controversy elsewhere.

Argo tells the story of a rescue mission to free six American diplomats from Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis; the Iranian government is so unhappy with the version of events that it has banned the screening of the film and is considering remaking it to correct perceived inaccuracies.

Zero Dark Thirty, about the decade-long search for Osama Bin Laden, has prompted heavy criticism and widespread boycotts in Pakistan, where the film is based.

There are numerous examples of African stories which have also been given the Hollywood treatment, and which have met with criticism and disdain on the continent. The likes of Blood Diamond, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio in a film about the civil conflict in Sierra Leone, were accused of focusing too heavily on white protagonists, for example, using the real suffering of Africans as a backdrop. That film was nominated for five Oscars in 2007.

So can developing world cinema challenge the Hollywood telling of its events? How free are artists, in Africa and elsewhere, to tell the stories they want to tell?

The film industry in Africa itself is growing: Nigeria is the third largest producer of straight-to-DVD films in the world. Kenya and Ghana also have growing film industries. There is a long tradition of high-quality Francophone films by African filmmakers, and South Africa has one of the oldest film industries in the world - although entry for black filmmakers is quite recent.

But many local products struggle for attention amidst Hollywood blockbusters. Output does not always equal impact, especially with the challenge and cost of distribution and marketing. Filmmakers might be able to tell their stories - but how many people get to hear them?

In some cases, censorship or political pressure still limit the freedom of artists: there are subjects which artists are less free to explore, and countries in which they are less free to be creative. Ugandan filmmaker Patrick Sekyaya - whose film, The Ugandan, is in competition at Fespaco - has come to realise the restrictions he faces. "There are topics you have to think twice before tackling or which for your safety are better untold. Topics that will get even actors saying 'I think I am not the right person for that role,' even when you know they can pull it off. Here you don't just wake up and say you will do a film about the gay community, a film about the political situation, a film that paints a bad picture about Uganda."

Victor Viyouh is a Cameroonian director who splits his time between his home country and the US. He points out the requirement by some some governments that artists submit scripts for approval before filming permits are granted: "It is understandable for my beloved Cameroon, for example, to be touchy about military sites appearing onscreen. That is a credible national security issue. But what happens if the artist's screenplay is critical of his government or country?" He finds it easier to operate in the US, in terms of freedoms and infrastructure - but not all African filmmakers have this option.

Political pressure is not the only obstacle to creativity. In fact, for many African artists financial pressures are the most significant hindrance. Few filmmakers are truly independent - they rely on outside funding. This may be the case for filmmakers the world over, but in Africa much of the cash comes from cultural agencies or NGOs outside the continent, and this has an impact on the kind of films being produced.

Namibian filmmaker Oshosheni Hiveluah believes funders often have a clear and pre-conceived idea of the kind of films they want to fund: "I feel in most part films that depict African people in a more positive light are not really the stories that funders and international festivals want to see. They are very happy to see Africa as a struggling continent, where people are corrupt, killing each other... I believe the image and perception of what African film is is still very narrow. In my early filmmaking years I was only working on HIV/Aids films because those were being funded at the time."

The impact of new technology on film and music piracy in Africa has been well documented - with digital media and the internet making content far easier to reproduce. But these same technological developments help the artists as well as the pirates. Cheaper digital technology can reduce the cost of producing a film, diminishing the need for outside support and influence. The internet and social media networks can be used to distribute and market products and even ideas - Victor Viyouh funded his latest film, Ninah's Dowry, entirely by "crowd funding".

But the pace of change is slow and for now, filmmakers still find it difficult to operate without funding and the goodwill of governments. Thom Ogonga, a Kenyan visual artist, points out that artists have a choice: "Artists are very free to tell their stories. A lot of factors may determine whether they do but in spaces with rampant poverty, very few can resist the temptation of a fistful of dollars to tell someone else's story instead."

On Friday 1 March the BBC Africa Debate will be asking, "Are artists free to tell their own stories?" Tune in at 1900 GMT or join the debate online via Twitter #bbcafricadebate #fespaco, or on Facebook - BBC Africa.