Fespaco: How free are African artists?

Dancers prepare on February 23, 2013 for the opening ceremony of the Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) at the 4-Aout stadium in Burkina Faso"s desert capital Ouagadougou.

Fespaco, Africa's premiere film festival, is taking place in Burkina Faso this week, amid debate about artistic freedom on the continent.

Some argue that Africans have never had so much artistic freedom, with a proliferation of books, paintings and films since the advent of multi-party democracy in the 1990s, and the huge advance in technology which has allowed anyone with a smartphone to publish their views across the world.

But critics say artists are still subject to tight censorship, pointing out that a South African gallery was forced to remove a painting of President Jacob Zuma under political pressure, while in Uganda a play about gay rights was banned.

So, just how free are Africa's artists - in film, literature and music- to tell their own stories? Here are some of their experiences:

Patrick Sekyaya, director of The Ugandan film

Having been born and raised in Uganda, it was the best place to be. It was my home and my everything.

I remember joining the film industry in 1999 - everything was still good. You didn't need a licence to shoot a film, no censor body to look at your script.

All you had to do was get a camera, run to the streets, shoot something and lock yourself in the edit suite - and later put your work out there for the world to see.

Today, I have grown to understand that not all stories can be told and not just any film can be done here.

There are topics you have to think twice before tackling or which, for your safety, are better left 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 to say you are doing a film about the gay community, a film about the political situation, or a film that paints a bad picture of Uganda.

One day I had to drop a story that was inspired by the practice of female genital mutilation amongst some communities in Uganda.

I had strong interviews and had done thorough research, but everyone kept telling me it was not safe to go ahead. But it is still my home, my Uganda, my everything.

Rose Francis, CEO of African Perspectives Publishing

I don't think anyone is free to exercise their art. And that includes artists.

There is a cost for this freedom. Artists are no different to the entrepreneur in that financial resources are required for the capital outlay of the "work" or manuscript.

Just to be in a position to indulge in the work is time spent creating a product without the immediate benefit of financial return.

Then the work needs to be produced depending upon the format and genre, requiring additional resources.

In the case of a writer, it is then given to a publisher, who spends even more resources to fine-tune the manuscript with an editor, proof reader, type setter, graphic designer etc. which could take considerable time before it is placed on the retail shelf.

Since the work now becomes a joint investment, compromise is inevitable. So, I guess artists are free to tell their story if they have the resources to indulge in this freedom.

Oshosheni Hiveluah, Namibian film-maker

There is a preconceived notion and expectations regarding African films. Only in recent years have young filmmakers begun to break the mould and make more experimental films.

Funders have a clear idea of the African films they want. In most instances, those that depict African people in an unconventional light are not the stories funders and international festivals want to see.

They are content to see Africa as a struggling continent, which is corrupt and disease-ridden.

Many urban African stories don't ever reach beyond Africa because of the question: "Are those really African stories?".

The image and perception of African film is still very narrow.

I want to tell African fantasy and surreal films, but the reaction is: "Why? Don't you have more important issues that you need to address in your films?"

Each African film-maker has his own story to tell and we need to allow the "strange for Africa" films to co-exist with those that speak of identity, cultural and moral injustices, war, HIV/Aids etc.

But things have changed slightly and filmmakers are finding alternative sources of funding - for instance, private investors - to tell stories they are passionate about.

Thom Ogonga, Kenyan visual artist

Are artists free to tell their own stories? This is a conscious choice each artist has to make.

However, in the developing world, with most artists relying solely on their practice for their livelihood, they are forced to compromise their genuine stories with some "fabricated reality" that is sellable.

This is further fuelled by the common perception that sales equal success, which leaves us caught up in creating fairy tales for sale.

In oppressive environments, artists are intimidated and live in fear of censorship or consequences of defiance.

In Kenya, having recently switched from the stereotypical African dictatorship that clamped down on creatives (mostly writers) to a more liberal government, artists whose work was inspired by bad governance, stemming from from semi-illiterate leadership, now have trouble remaining relevant.

The whole funding situation further complicates the scenario.

There's a big chunk of "development" aid and "human rights" funding channelled through non-governmental organisations.

A handful of very prolific artists have gone mercenary. They've stopped making good art and have started championing the causes of civil society groups because the money is good.

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.

Artists just have to believe that their own stories are good enough.

Victor Viyouh, Cameroonian film-maker

Filmmakers, unlike other artists such as painters and dancers, need money to practice their craft.

And African filmmakers are especially burdened by a lack of money because our societies are financially strapped and they historically undervalue art.

Our governments have different priorities and our businessmen see no financial value in supporting art.

So African artists often find it impossible to tell their own stories.

One way around that difficulty, I find, is crowd-funding. With many people making small donations, an artist can raise enough money to see through a vision that would otherwise be impossible to realise.

That is how I completed my debut feature, Ninah's Dowry. But the lack of a speedy internet structure and limited access to credit cards still make crowd-funding a challenge on the continent.

Another not-so-obvious deterrent to an artist's freedom is the requirement by 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?

Manny Ansah, executive director of Mali's Festival in the Desert

Belonging to a very traditional society with conservative cultural values, I always have to make sure that what I say or what I do does not offend certain sensitivities. Which is not easy when you realise that the Festival in the Desert, while looking outward to the modern world, is organised by an indigenous people from a very traditionalist milieu.

With the occupation of a large part of Mali and the prohibition of any form of artistic expression such as music, things became much more difficult.

Expression itself was extremely risky because you exposed yourself to various punishments from the occupiers - including imprisonment.

Even on the international level, to denounce what was happening could bring you trouble.

At first you may be labelled as "an enemy of Islam" with all that implies in consequences for your daily life.

However, this does not intimidate us because we are convinced that what we do is not against Islam.

Our struggle is to show the values that are held by the majority of Muslims in the world, values of sharing and of tolerance.

Keith Shiri, international film curator, originally from Zimbabwe

In its comparatively short history, African cinema has been viewed with considerable apathy and condescension both at home and abroad.

No post-colonial African state in the continent has attempted to develop a cultural or film policy that incorporates critical debates, political and the poetic, since former Senegalese President Leopold Senghor's 1960s attempt with his idea of "Negritude".

With funding intertwined in various governmental departments and international development resources, film-makers are often forced to avoid making films dealing with their immediate surroundings.

Instead, they produce films that are neither critical of social problems and national politics nor entertaining.

That said, digital storytelling has presented film-makers with essential tools to battle for the freedom to create and distribute their work.

In the last 10 years, young Africans have brought amazing energy to drama by embracing digital technology and therefore producing work that has been able to reach its audience across multiple platforms providing film-makers the freedom to imagine and free from the global hegemony.