The forefront of innovation

There needs to be another solution than free market capitalism globally to promote artistic creativity. The experience from Sierra Leone is not encouraging.

A still from "Shooting Freetown."

Kieran Hanson’s documentary “Shooting Freetown” is a short glimpse into the lives of various media creators in Freetown, Sierra Leone during July and August of 2011. I was in the city at the same time this was being filmed, and visited with some of the same people, and from my perspective Hanson did a brilliant job of portraying what Freetown felt like this past rainy season (this being an election year, the city will probably feel quite different.)

What I really appreciate about the project is that it incorporates the local perspectives on media creation with the filmmakers’ own “outsider” view on the local industry. Although the perspective of the film is not explicitly theirs, I think that it is a good introduction to the work of Sierra Leonean media makers, especially to the brilliant work of We Own TV. It’s also nice to see the We Own TV director Arthur Pratt’s view on the organization outside of his directorial duties. The comment about taking advantage of outside help before that well of support dries up, resonated with me especially.

Watch “Shooting Freetown” here:

With all the positives in the documentary there is an aspect of it that didn’t quite sit well with me. I think that the focus on piracy in the piece is unfortunate. The filmmaker rightly takes an uncritical view towards his subjects, and piracy was something I noticed at the forefront of everyone’s mind when I was there as well. But the piece also doesn’t provide any alternative possibilities to copyright legislation to create money for artists. That silence probably comes with his position as an ethnographer. In trying to keep with his role as a detached observer, he looses a chance to provide an alternative model (if there were one).

It would have been nice to at least see an alternative local opinion, like perhaps the tape seller’s. What I was told by people who knew a few cassette sellers well (and were able to secure me bootlegs of local music on the low) is that people just aren’t demanding local media like they are demanding foreign media. When I visited in 2006, all you heard was Salone music on the streets. In August of 2011,  Ice Prince, Waconzy, Busy Signal, or Vybz Kartel dominated street sounds. Because they get so much heat for piracy, the cassette sellers are gladly obliging their customer base, and just selling foreign music. As some would see it, the anti-piracy bill isn’t really going to help the local industry, at least not in the short term.

The truth is, shortly after the anti-piracy bill was passed in Sierra Leone, a broadband fiber optic cable arrived from off of the Atlantic coast, plugging Sierra Leone into a high speed connection with the rest of the world. When the fiber optic cable on the East Coast of Africa was completed, I was skeptical that its effects would be felt by a majority of a population, but word from Nairobi is that it has in fact made the Internet faster and cheaper. When the Internet is working at full force (by late 2012) in Freetown, no one’s going to even buy pirated CDs anymore. The cassette sellers will inevitably go out of business, or have to find a way to adapt. (Michael Stasik notes in his thesis, ‘DISCOnnections – popular music audiences in Freetown, Sierra Leone’, that the Cassette Sellers Association was one of the only trade unions to survive the war, and was perhaps the first to rebound after.)

What all this proves for me is that there needs to be another solution than free market capitalism globally to promote artistic creativity. I wish that Sierra Leonean creatives would be at the forefront of that innovation rather than behind it all.

Further Reading

Look to Cuba

Cubans are far better prepared than most for public health and climate emergencies. African countries should emulate the island nation in this regard.