Sunday, June 16, 2024
ArtSilencing Creativity

Silencing Creativity

Artistic freedom under siege as Bualetika, Min Litazez ban sparks controversy

Ethiopia’s art and media industries are facing a concerning rise in indirect censorship and the banning of creative works. As the government seeks to tighten its control over public discourse, the space for free expression is rapidly shrinking.

In a disheartening turn of events, the government has recently banned the one-man sitcom Bualetika, making it the latest casualty of this oppressive trend.

Alem Cinema was compelled to halt the sitcom’s production as security forces dutifully enforced the government’s decision.

The government’s order to ban Bualetika’s theatrical production has ignited a fierce debate about the challenges faced by political critics in various artistic forms, ranging from music and sitcoms to film and theater.

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During a visit to Alem Cinema, The Reporter discovered that Bualetika would be temporarily shelved. The advertisement banner, once proudly displayed, was unceremoniously taken down, abruptly ending the remarkable one-man theater performance that had captivated Ethiopian audiences for 10 weeks.

Bualetika, penned by the talented author Bereket Belayneh, showcases actor Girum Zenebe’s groundbreaking one-man performance, breathing new life into the play after decades of dormancy since the days of the Laureate Tsegaye Gebremedhin.

Regrettably, the theatrical journey of Bualetika, which began in October 2023 and enjoyed immense popularity across 20 platforms, has now been stifled by an unforeseen prohibition, sending shockwaves through the Ethiopian artistic community.

Leading the charge against this censorship is the Ethiopian Theater Professionals Association, an organization boasting a membership of over 200 individuals.

With its roots tracing back to the 1950s and founded by artist Alemtsehay Wedajo in 1979, the Association is voicing its opposition to the state’s ban on Bualetika, rallying support from fellow artists and activists alike.

The Association is currently led by Binyam Worku, an accomplished filmmaker credited with more than 11 films.

The ban on this landmark play marks a poignant episode in the intricate tapestry of Ethiopian theater, where the suppression of artistic works has deep historical roots, remarked Biniyam.

A veteran artist who spoke with The Reporter on the condition of anonymity says that this is not merely an act of halting a play. “It is stifling human thought, vision, and inner pain expressed through art. We have never seen such crackdowns on art during the Derg regime.”

Throughout history, political criticisms have found diverse avenues of expression, from poignant poetry recitals during Haile Selassie I’s reign to the contemporary stage.

The ban on Bualetika raises alarm not only about the suppression of artistic freedom but also about the government’s approach to handling dissenting voices.

Binyam argues that such prohibitions only breed resentment and fail to address the underlying concerns.

Yonas Habtamu, the manager of Alem Cinema, shed some light on the ongoing controversy, revealing that the source of the ban on Bualetika remains shrouded in uncertainty.

While Haile Gebrselassie, the renowned world athletics icon and owner of the cinema house, received the order to cease the production, it is yet unclear which government office issued the directive.

Yonas emphasized, “The contract with the Bualetika producers remains intact. Although we have removed the banner for this week’s shows, the prominent signage outside Alem Cinema still stands.”

Yonas remains hopeful that the government will reconsider its decision, allowing the play to grace the stage once more. “As of now, we lack definitive information to ascertain the situation,” he added.

The suspension also extends to the full movie of the TV series Sitcom Min Litazez and the film Taschershignalesh No 1, further fueling concerns about the curtailing of artistic expression. In fact, producers of Min Litazez hope to take the sitcom abroad.

It is worth noting that these bans do not stem from allegations of extremism or incitement of violence. Instead, they ostensibly revolve around the portrayal of ideas that advocate for basic human values. Actors, authors and broadcasting stations involved with such contents, are usually threatened. 

The challenges faced by artists in Ethiopia are not novel. Prior to the recent change in government, the Addis Ababa Culture and Tourism Bureau wielded substantial power to censor various forms of art, Biniyam elucidated.

This has led to the rejection of numerous films and theater productions, often based on arbitrary criteria, such as character names aligning with the authorities of the time.

Despite Ethiopia’s constitution enshrining freedom of expression without subjugation, censorship continues to exert its influence, albeit in a modified form.

Insiders revealed that the Bureau frequently withholds approval for artworks if they fail to align with the ruling regime’s preferences, leaving filmmakers, playwrights, and authors with no choice but to shy away from tackling weighty subjects and focus on lighter topics like comedy.

Scholars argue that this stifles the growth of the Ethiopian art industry and impedes the public’s engagement with critical issues.

The recent change in leadership at the Bureau’s review office, with Nabiyou Bayu assuming the helm, has sparked discussions about the need to revamp censorship practices. There are ongoing efforts to establish a standardized certification process for films, which could potentially provide filmmakers with a broader platform to showcase their creations to the public.

Binyam highlights the pressing need for clarity on whether the ban on Bualetika stems from orders issued by the command post in Addis Ababa. In the event that the ban is not a directive from the command post, the Association says a formal statement will be issued to address the matter.

The situation serves as a microcosm of a broader trend, where works like Min Litazez and Bualetika face restrictions, while others are granted permission to be shown.

The Min Litazez Sitcom Group shed light on the challenges they encounter during the production of the sitcom series on Fana TV, citing censorship as a significant obstacle. Fana TV’s stringent censorship policies particularly hamper the sitcom’s creators, posing a substantial hurdle to their artistic endeavors.

The environment is marred by personal threats targeting actors, telephonic threats directed at TV station officials, and contract terminations by advertising agencies, creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

The financial challenges faced by sitcoms add yet another layer of complexity.

Despite the popularity of sitcoms among prominent business figures and bank executives, securing sponsorship proves to be an elusive endeavor. The exorbitant operating budget, which includes expenses like filming location rentals, actors’ fees, and production costs, often proves to be prohibitively expensive.

Nevertheless, creators emphasize their role as integral members of society, expressing their commitment to reflecting the people’s sentiments rather than being driven solely by financial gain.

As Min Litazez grapples with potential budget constraints that may necessitate a transition into a drama tailored for international audiences, the challenges posed by the politically charged environment persist.

The future of Ethiopian sitcoms and theater, as exemplified by the unresolved status of the suspended show, remains uncertain.

The bans imposed on Bualetika and other artistic works reflect a complex interplay between political sensitivity, censorship challenges, financial constraints, and the unwavering dedication of artists to express their ideas. The ongoing struggle within Ethiopia’s artistic landscape serves as a microcosm of the broader societal challenges, raising profound questions about the limits of freedom of expression and the pivotal role of art in shaping a nation’s narrative.

Despite multiple attempts, the author of Bualetika, Bereket, and its actor Girum declined to respond to inquiries from The Reporter.

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