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Junior Pope, the Unsung Heroes of Cinema, and the Tragic Emblem of Nollywood’s Safety Lapses

Nollywood is finally realizing, although the hard way, that the regulations governing safety practices in filmmaking are inadequate and largely unenforced.
May 1, 2024
6:18 am
Junior Pope
Junior Pope

Every year, thousands of films make their way to theaters around the globe. Rarely mentioned are the sacrifices of unsung heroes who paid with lives and limbs to bring these imaginations to fruition.


Tragically, Pope Obumneme Odonwodo, affectionately known as “Junior Pope,” is the latest to join this sorrowful list. A fortnight has passed since the deadly boat accident that claimed the life of the Nollywood actor and those of several crew members during the production of “The Other Side of Life” on the Anam River.


Hearts are still reeling, and fingers have been pointed accordingly to producer Adanma Luke, who was subsequently suspended by the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN), the crowd of on-scene rescuers and Junior Pope himself for failing to avert an easily preventable danger by donning a life vest.


If there’s one thing this tragic event has taught Nollywood, it’s that the regulations governing safety practices in filmmaking are inadequate and, even existent, largely unenforced.


James Amuta
James Amuta

Infamous accidents

From the infamous 1982 “Twilight Zone” helicopter crash that killed Vic Morrow and two child actors on the ground; the firearm mishap that led to 28-year-old Brandon Lee – Bruce Lee’s son – being shot in the abdomen on the set of “The Crow” a decade later; 65-year-old truck driver John Suttles’ broken skull enroute delivering a load for the set of the $1.5 billion blockbuster, “Avengers,” in 2011; to the recent 2021 “Rust” tragedy involving Alec Baldwin who pulled the trigger of a supposedly non-lethal prop gun that shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, set accidents remain a global issue.


An investigation by the Associated Press revealed a troubling statistic: from 1990 to 2016, at least 43 people died and over 150 suffered “life-altering injuries” during film and TV productions in the United States.


Brandon Lee
Brandon Lee

Some of these accidents, such as the death of Sarah Jones during the filming of “Midnight Rider,” occurred under clearly preventable circumstances – like failing to secure proper permits which resulted in the 27-year-old camera assistant being struck by a train. Others, like Michael Bridger’s drowning during “The Lone Ranger” and the 1982 “Twilight Zone” helicopter crash involve more complex factors that make direct blame difficult to assign.


Although these mishaps are not peculiar to Nigeria, something as blatantly careless as going for a canoe ride without life vests might be. As J.J. Abrams noted, there are accidents that happen and those that are waiting to happen like the case with Junior Pope.


These incidents often remain swept under the rug, even in well-established industries, due to the fear of being labeled a “troublemaker” which could jeopardize future employment opportunities. In Nigeria, where gathering accurate data can be challenging, it’s likely that many incidents are significantly underreported.


Junior Pope may have had the luxury of being popular. Set workers and personal assistants don’t. The death of movie director Harley Akpo in a swimming pool in Asaba in 2019 hardly drew half as much attention as Junior Pope. Nor did badly burnt Ani Iyoho while on set of Stanlee Ohikhuare’s film after a fire extinguisher malfunctioned.


Sarah Jones during the filming of Midnight Rider
Sarah Jones during the filming of Midnight Rider

Occupational Safety and Health protocols and the Nigerian problem

Under labor laws in most countries, employers are required to ensure a safe work environment, implement safety protocols, and comply with occupational health and safety regulations, holding them accountable for any injuries or deaths resulting from negligence. This legal obligation is enforced rigorously in established industries such as Hollywood, where agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with active guilds, effectively deter occupational hazards on film sets.


Nigerian filmmaker James Amuta emphasizes that the safety and security of the cast and crew, as well as the privacy and tranquility of the surrounding community, primarily fall under the jurisdiction of the production company, followed by the producer, and then the collective responsibility of everyone involved in the production.


Provision of a medical practitioner armed with first aid kits at all times is a necessity. And for maritime shoots, which Thom Davis, business manager for IATSE Local 80, terms as a “very, very, serious” safety challenge, a lifeguard and lifejackets are the least one could ask for.


In Nollywood, however, it’s more or less a free world. Although registration in the National Film and Video Censor Board is compulsory to shoot a movie in Nigeria, unlike in different states of America, film permits are not needed for local productions in Nigeria except for Lagos State.


John Suttles
John Suttles

While organizations like the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) in the United States provide anonymous hotlines for reporting safety violations, which is required by law to be confidential, Nollywood equivalents, the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN) and the Federation of Registered Nollywood Guilds have been accused of being comatose.


Tasked, among other things, with ensuring the welfare of cast and crew members, it is unclear how respected they are in day-to-day industry practices.


On-set safety inspections by dedicated personnel are not widespread in Nollywood, unlike those of many other countries–sans America–where a dedicated safety officer on each set is the norm. In the event that a production cannot afford a health and safety officer, Amuta deems it necessary that the producer have some experience or, at least, “the competence to know that without safety, you don’t have production.”


What you have are actors and crew members getting needlessly electrocuted because of producers failing to provide the necessary waterproof equipment; kidnapped and harassed by street thugs due to lack of due diligence in verifying the safety of the location, consulting the communities, and selfish need to minimize the cost of hiring security; crushed in motor accidents due to negligence in inspecting the road-worthiness of the vehicle and the driver and, of course, drowning because of the lack of common sense to ensure something as basic as life vests are provided.


“The overall ineptitude, ignorance and incompetence exists even on the big productions in Lagos,” the director says.


Economic factors

However, there is more to this story than meets the eye.


Speaking to the TNR team, Elimihe Osezuah, known for his work on “Unforgivable,” offers a different viewpoint, especially for independent filmmakers operating under severe financial constraints. Questioning the feasibility of implementing stringent safety measures amidst these struggles, the filmmaker asks: “In an economy where the last thing to enjoy a boom in moments of abundance, and the first thing to suffer a cut in moments of distress is the creative enterprise, where do safety measures play when survival is always the game?”


Economic challenges within the Nigerian creative sector as a whole forces independent filmmakers, whom Osezuah terms “men and women of steely conviction,” to constantly balance safety against survival, often under budget constraints that make comprehensive safety measures seem like a luxury rather than a necessity.


“I once rejected a 60-second TV commercial whose budget was less than N5 million. These folks produce full length movies with as little as N3 million or even less,” Osezuah says.


Halyna Hutchins
Halyna Hutchins

Although nothing can be substituted for personal safety and those of others, it is obvious from Nigeria’s age-long economic woes, made no better by scant local and foreign investments in Nollywood, that local filmmakers would, however unpleasant, choose risk over safety. Little wonder Junior Pope himself, moments before his death, openly acknowledged the risks taken by creators to entertain Nigerians.


Osezuah’s remarks echo the sentiment that these filmmakers, rather than being seen as reckless, should be regarded as heroic for their determination to create despite these challenges. The analogy that “it is better to burn in use than rust in disuse,” borrowed from Lord Alfred Tennyson, vividly captures the ethos of these filmmakers who prefer to actively pursue their craft, even under risky conditions, rather than wait indefinitely for ideal circumstances that may never materialize.


Investors and Insurance companies also share the blame. It is a common theme across various sectors that standards often only improve significantly when driven by outside forces such as investors and insurance companies, who can mandate stricter compliance as a condition of their engagement. In the context of Nollywood, this would mean more substantial investment from these external parties to enforce safety protocols that could prevent accidents and fatalities, bringing the industry closer in line with international standards. But as it stands, major investors–including locals–are unwilling.


“There’s hardly any competent insurance policies for films with even more than N200 million in Nigeria, without using a broker that will outsource to foreign insurers,” Amuta laments. Add that and the vegetable nature of the existing guilds and you have several Junior Popes waiting to happen.


In a bid to defend his association, the President of the Directors Guild of Nigeria and Chairman of The Federation of Registered Nollywood Guilds and Associations, Victor Okhai speaking to PUNCH, asked the public to consider that his association is in its infancy and is growing in unity.


But the public–apparently–aren’t buying it

Amplifying the call for total reforms as opposed to mere temporary fixes like suspending specific types of shoots are voices from various industry stalwarts, including Ernest Obi, Jim Iyke, Sam Dede, Kanayo O. Kanayo, and AGN President Emeka Rollas.


There is a consensus that strict adherence to safety standards would not possibly prevent all industry-related accidents; complex movie set pieces and the insistence of some directors for practical effects (peek Christopher Nolan) put movie set risks on the same scale as, in the words of Okhai, the oil and gas industry.


However, the desirable goal is to reduce these figures to non-existent levels; in other words, prevent as many as possible.



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