Transplant Tourism: ‘Black Harvest’ Dives Nose Deep into the Underground Billion-Dollar Empire
In a world with a population of over seven billion individuals, there is a shortage of organs. Yes you read right, there is a shortage of organs for people who are in desperate need of one. Imagine this scenario: a family member with a severe health condition has been informed by doctors that he or she has only a short while to live. His or her only saving grace is if he gets a kidney from a willing donor.
The problem is he or she has been on the donor waiting list for years and has yet to receive a positive response. A suggestion is made to this patient: skip the waiting list, travel to a third-world country with enough funds, get a kidney from a desperate citizen, coerce a doctor to conduct the procedure, and you will feel brand new. That is transplant tourism.
According to the International Journal of Travel Medicine and Global Health, Transplant tourism “involves travel outside one’s country of residence, with the aim of procuring organs, predominantly kidney, liver or corneal transplantation services.” It is an umbrella term that encapsulates other activities like organ trafficking, organ harvesting, and other commercialized transplantation services.
Transplant tourism is illegal in most developed countries, with national laws and penalties put in place to discourage people from engaging in the trade. However, the business has become one of the most lucrative illegal activities in the world, with an annual revenue generation of $840 million to 1.7 billion.
The hotspots for organ harvesting include Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines; willing and unwilling participants are coerced with pecuniary incentives and other benefits to donate their organs via a clinical procedure for commercialized transplant purposes.
This illegal organ trade is not just a foreign phenomenon, it is a local one as well. Transplant tourism takes place in Nigeria and James Amuta wants people to be aware of it. The award-winning producer, writer, and filmmaker’s neo-noir film Black Harvest explores the underground world of illegal organ transplantation. TNR sat down with Amuta to discuss this upcoming project and his vision for the film.
Can you tell us about your film Black Harvest?
I like hard-hitting films and I like talking about topical subjects that most people shy away from. My specialty is neo-noir films. I wrote Collision Course about police brutality, and I produced Nightfall in Lagos which bordered on sex trafficking in Lagos. Now, I am delving into the realm of organ harvesting and transplant tourism with Black Harvest.
For some reason, the media has sold the idea to us that when a body is left by the roadside and the organs are missing, then the person is an automatic victim of a ritual killing. That is not always the case – the person may have been a victim of organ harvesting. This practice has been going on for a while, but no one talks about it. I decided to make a film that sheds more light on the tricks of the trade.
In the West, the practice is common among the wealthy whereby they would skip the donor waiting list and get an organ from a willing participant. They would travel to, maybe, India for example, and get the procedure done. These participants are enticed with money and are often lied to because the transaction may be for one organ, but once they are sedated, their other organs are being harvested to be sold. Then, they are left for dead.
Did the inspiration for the film come from Ekweremadu’s case and the drama surrounding it?
I get very disappointed when Nigerians compare Black Harvest to Ekweremadu’s case. This film was made in June 2022 and the script had been in development since January of that year. Ekweremadu’s case came up in the middle of pre-production, so there is no way that they are related. Also, the plot of Black Harvest has no semblance to Ekweremadu’s case.
This film is about transplant tourism, a global billion-dollar industry where foreigners get a tourist visa, jump on a plane to a third-world country, go to a shady clinic and, a week later, they have brand new organs. They cannot get it in their country because there are stringent laws and protocols. Third-world countries, however, have laxed laws and with the high rate of poverty, people are ready to sell just about anything, even their own organs, to make money.
When picking the cast for the film, what were you looking out for in the actors?
Kelechi Udegbe – a powerhouse in Nollywood – was someone I thought of while we had started casting. He played the character of Jam Jam and I had crafted this character without first thinking of him. However, when I read the script again, I realized that this is Kelechi’s character.
I had worked with him previously in Collision Course, so I called him and said, “Kelechi, you killed someone in the last film. Now, I want to make you a proper villain. You were hated before, but now I want people to hate you even more.” He played Jam Jam perfectly, and I could not have been happier.
Another interesting casting choice was the iconic Elvina “Baby” Ibru. When the script was discussed by the producers, casting directors and I, there was only one person I envisioned playing the character of Mama Stella, and it was Elvina. However, at the time, we were not very close. But my big mummy in the industry knew her so I asked if she could link us up.
Coincidentally, when we were scouting for locations to be used in the film, one of our stops was Ibru’s residence. There was only one Ibru I knew in Nollywood and that was Elvina so I figured we were at her house. It was then that I decided to muster up the courage to talk to her about Black Harvest. We spoke and I had my doubts that she would be interested in my script because she is a staunch professional, but she was and asked that I send it (the script) initially for the sake of the location.
A few hours later, she called me and asked, “Who is playing the character of Mama Stella?” I responded with, “To be honest, I was hoping I could talk to you about the character.” Immediately she affirmed that she would be Mama Stella! That was all I ever wanted. As a side note, the cloth she was wearing on the day we met screamed Mama Stella, so I called the costume designer and requested a duplicate to be used in the film. Elvina Ibru literally designed the character.
Working with her was such a delight because she loved the character, came up with an entire backstory for her, and was enthusiastic about the film in general. Her optimism even prompted me to rewrite the character of Mama Stella because she deserved more than what was in the initial script.
The other revelation was Tope Olowoniyan who was absolutely incredible. Omowumi Dada read the script and told me that the perfect person to play a character in the film was Tope. At first, I was skeptical about casting her because Tope is a beautiful woman and I did not want the character to be objectified. Omowumi said I should still give her a chance so I did. Tope arrived at my residence, and we did somewhat of a mini audition, and I was floored. Her performance was powerful, and I immediately retracted my earlier skepticism.
Her on-set presence was just as powerful; she dislocated her shoulder during an action sequence. She was supposed to react to the impact of an AK-47 hitting her at close range by falling on cue. Due to technical difficulties, she fell, but it was not on cue so the impact was nasty. We called the medics and she was in pain, but her focus was more on the performance. She turned to me and said, “Director, did I get it right? Should we do another take?” Tope was so dedicated to her character, and I can confidently say that she is one of the most authentic performers in the film.
Lavinna Vermaa, the actress that played the Indian doctor was phenomenal. She never broke character and worked very well with the other cast members. Casting Gregory Ojefua as Dr. Fash was a no-brainer. There was no one else who could play that character because he has the ability to naturally blend into characters.
Both the cast and crew brought in their A-game and displayed a high level of professionalism.
Will the film be released in cinemas, or will it be launched on streaming services?
An announcement will be made in August regarding this question. I am a big fan of the cinema so with the right distributors and the right terms, we cannot rule out the prospect of a cinematic release. We made Black Harvest with the intent that it be released both locally and internationally because transplant tourism is a universal concern. I would like to believe that we have made a good film, so whichever one works. We are not opposed to any release method at the moment.
What do you hope audiences would gain from watching Black Harvest?
I want audiences to experience what we have created. I want the film to start a conversation on organ trafficking and, most especially, transplant tourism. Most people are aware of the former but have no clue about the latter and its impact in the global spectrum. Black Harvest might be gory and raw, but it will change the way people have perceived certain crimes in the past.
Watch the trailer for Black Harvest here.