TITLE: Digital Paradox: Piracy, Ownership, and the Constraints of African Screen Media
The seminar was held 18 October 2013 on the campus of Indiana University-Bloomington.
In one of the several tributes to Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese filmmaker and acknowledged pioneer of African cinema who died in June 2007, the critic Julia Watson underscores the paradox of African filmmaking with a poignant observation. Sembene had taken to cinema on recognizing literature’s limitations in an environment of severe illiteracy. Resolved not to lose control of his work, however, he negotiated strict contracts with the distributors of his films. One result of this decision, Watson writes, is that “one would have to visit Western cultural capitals—Paris, Berlin, London, New York, Los Angeles—or universities to view the films he had made to engage Africans about their traditions and the conflicts of entering modernity” (2007, 5).
The current realities of African screen media are certain to throw this argument open to debate, especially considering that films made in different parts of the continent nowadays are geared primarily toward local needs, both in production and consumption. Add to this the nature of the technology of filmmaking with its template of easier access and more democratized production mechanisms, and we are introduced to ideas about film production that make Sembene’s legal exertions seem excessively old-fashioned and obsolete. But this is also a partial picture, and it comes with its own paradoxes, perhaps even more intractable than those with which Sembene and his generation of cultural producers were saddled. This second set of paradoxes is the main concern of this workshop.
During this one-day workshop, we debate and reflect upon the relationships between the democratic nature of digital technology and its impact upon the important issues of copyright and intellectual property. Advances in digital technology have made filmmaking more affordable, as the example of Nollywood, the not-so-new cinematic practice in Nigeria, shows. Similarly, digital recording has facilitated the spread and immediacy of hip hop, hiplife, mbalax, kuduro, and other musical forms where artists previously relied on being discovered by Western artists and music producers. Digital recording has also facilitated the dissemination and reproduction of religious media such as CDs and DVDs.
Yet the free circulation of ideas and images underwritten by digital technology and suited to shoestring filmmaking in postcolonial contexts also occasion several other constraints. Two of these, copyright ownership and piracy, are the focus of the workshop.
The issues-based form of filmmaking, which makes the postcolonial director the client of global corporations, non-governmental organizations, and liberal cultural brokers, also raises the question of who is the ultimate controller or custodian of works thus produced. It is an open secret that certain African directors do not have the rights to all the films credited to them. They make films like the proverbial Hollywood contracted director, but with neither the professional recognition of the Hollywood director nor the satisfaction of the old-fashioned author who retains the control of his or her work.
As several scholars and filmmakers have argued, cinematic practices such as Nollywood could not have succeeded without the formal adaptation of video to film, and other activities that bordered on piracy, such as the sale of bootlegged films and cleaning up VHS tapes to record new dramas. In one fascinating example of this dilemma, a scene in Jean-Marie Teno’s Sacred Places (2009) shows children in a Ouagadougou neighborhood watching a pirated copy of Yaaba, the film by Idrissa Ouedraogo, who lives in the same city but is unaware of this mode of circulating his work among consumers who are also unaware of him. In Nigeria, director Tunde Kelani has consistently maintained that unchecked piracy is steadily eroding the grounds on which Nollywood stands.
At this workshop, participants debate the questions associated with these paradoxes. In what ways do the much-storied features of new technology—affordability, portability, accessibility—impact on practices of filmmaking, distribution, exhibition, and storage? Are the observed inhibiting factors peculiar to the context of unequal exchange/digital divide on the continent or are they intrinsic to the technology itself? Does it matter who is the ultimate legal owner of a film that is freely available on YouTube? From the point of view of professional engagement, in what practical ways can this seeming disadvantage be turned into an advantage, perhaps reminiscent of the kinds of imaginativeness which gave rise to phenomena like Nollywood in the first place? Is the state unable or unwilling to intervene to advocate for the rights of filmmakers who no longer necessarily promote a nationalist aesthetic? Do we need other parameters, languages, and typologies for thinking about this situation than those of neocolonial extraction and unequal exchange? What will these be and how are they to be formulated and theorized?
Watson, Julia. “Ousmane Sembene: A Memorial Tribute,” Research in African Literatures, Volume 38, Number 4, Winter 2007, pp. 4-6.
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