‘Dark October’ & Nollywood’s Struggle with Copyright Infringement
Who gets to tell our stories?
Who gets to tell our stories?
The advent of global movie streaming services has resulted in a major boom for the Nigerian film industry. These platforms—Netflix, Showmax, Amazon Prime, and more—have contributed to presenting Nigerian films and their stars (behind the scenes or in front of the camera) to worldwide audiences, as well as revealing cultural and societal idiosyncrasies. While good abounds in the current situation, only a few Nigerian productions have managed to entertain viewers and critics alike, and side-step the notion that Nigerian filmmakers are yet to master pairing a great story with a great production value.
In a recent interview, Nigerian critic Alithnayn Abdulkareem shares “…Nollywood is not at the stage where the films being produced have the range to feature in or compete in global conversations about the quality, purpose and vision of film. In business terms, perhaps, but no way in terms of plot, dialogue or the aforementioned production values.” In most cases, the Nigerian films that delve into more complex subject matters fail to make a splash on the home front, and are shoved to the background in favour of glossy big-budget blockbusters.
For the longest period, piracy and copyright infringement were two issues that have handicapped the Nigerian film industry; while cinema and film streaming platforms have helped curb the cancerous growth of piracy, the latter is still a problem that continually rears its ugly head. The latest case is the Linda Ikeji-executive-produced Netflix-housed film ‘Dark October.’ Released on the streaming platform over the past week, the Toka McBaror-directed film is centred on the tragic death of four University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT) students who were wrongly accused of theft and lynched in the Aluu community of Rivers State in October 2012.
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‘Dark October’ aims for a realistic and jolting portrayal of the death and events surrounding the death of those four students—Ugonna Obuzor, Lloyd Toku, Tekena Elkanah and Chiadika Biringa. In 2012, when clips of the lynching surfaced on the internet and went viral, the unfortunate incident shook the country as calls were made to ensure stringent measures for jungle justice. An anti-lynching bill was proposed but that hasn’t seen the light of day. Five years after the incident, a trial was held in Rivers State and three persons were sentenced to death for the murder of the four undergraduate students.
Days before ‘Dark October’s’ February 3 premiere on Netflix, the families of the four UNIPORT students, through a statement from the Integrity Friends for Truth and Peace Initiative (TIFPI), demanded the suspension of the film, citing that they were not contacted for the project. “The production of the advertised movie has deeply reactivated the trauma and psychological pain that these families have been irrecoverably battling with for the past ten years, and this is unfair,” the statement read. “It is on record that Linda Ikeji has never reached out to the affected families since 2012 and this raises questions on her motivation.”
The families also threatened legal action against Linda Ikeji and her partners, which in this case are Netflix and the film’s distributor FilmOne Productions. In an interview with BBC Pidgin, Linda Ikeji stated that her decision to make the film came from a good place, which is to honour the memories of the Aluu Four victims and cast light on the evils of jungle justice. While those are noble intentions, they do not reduce the severity of her and her crew’s actions. ‘Dark October’, which should have been a saving grace of some sort, also doesn’t match Ikeji’s upright aspirations.
‘Dark October’ might be the latest case of copyright-associated problems but it’s not the first, high-profile case of this nature. In 2020, shortly after the release of the Kenneth Gyang-directed Òlòtūré on Netflix, Nigerian journalist Tobore Ovuorie called out EbonyLife Films owner Moe Abudu and the film’s crew for failure to sufficiently credit her as the primary source for Òlòtūré. In 2014, ZAM Chronicle and Premium Times published Ovuorie’s undercover report of sex trafficking in Nigeria. “[Òlòtūré] does not closely resemble my work,” Ovuorie said. “It is a copy and paste of my work. [Òlòtūré] is my life story.”
Although the film’s crew admits that Òlòtūré was inspired by Ovuorie’s report, Mo Abudu refuted Ovorie’s claims, stating she had acknowledged Ovuorie’s journalistic achievements, granted her a private screening of the movie, given her a special mention and offered 5% of the profits of the film’s cinema run to Tobore’s NGO. She further stated that her company had obtained the rights to Ovuorie’s story through Premium Times, her employer at the time.
Mo Abudu responds to Tobore Ovuorie’s allegations against EbonyLife on Oloture in new video. pic.twitter.com/KBuko0tj2c
— Ibrahim Salawu (@UnilagOlodo) January 12, 2021
Ovuorie responded to Abudu’s remarks, saying that she had, through her lawyers, informed Abudu that the investigation for her piece had started before her employment with Premium Times. “[Òlòtūré] is an ADAPTATION of my work and life-story. I experienced the investigation, the process, and the risks, upon which the movie is based,” she wrote. “I also single-handedly authored the publication the movie relied on. The publication of my experience is what gave birth to [Òlòtūré].” Ovuorie also demanded compensation of $5,000,000.00 for copyright infringement.
According to the Nigerian Copyright Act LFN 2004, the author of a work owns the copyright; however, Section 10 (3) of the Act stipulates that “where a literary, artistic or musical work is made by the author in the course of his employment by the proprietor of a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical under a contract of service or apprenticeship…the said proprietor shall, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, be the first owner of copyright in the work in so far as the copyright relates to the publication of the work in any newspaper, magazine or similar periodical.” This section shows that while Ovuorie is the author of the work and has exclusive rights, Premium Times also has copyright claims as the publisher. Legally, Mo Abudu was right to say she got consent from Premium Times but it still doesn’t erase Ovuorie’s demands that she be identified as the sole owner of the story because, without her work, there wouldn’t have been any reason for Abudu to approach Premium Times in the first place.
The issue of copyright infringement isn’t only a problem in film; it’s also prevalent in the music industry, with the most recent cases being Carter Efe vs. Berri Tiga and SGaWD vs. Dvpper Music. In the situation of Linda Ikeji and ‘Dark October,’ it seems to be a moral issue rather than a legal one. Globally, there is no requirement for a filmmaker to seek consent before making a film about a person– whether living or dead. The only exception to the rule, though, is if a person has copyrighted their name, image and likeness—thereby making it a standout brand. That is not the case with the Aluu Four victims, meaning that anyone can make a film about them.
For a story as deeply troubling with heavy themes as ‘Dark October,’ Linda Ikeji could have done the just and moral thing and engaged the families of the victims by trying to seeking out their consent and support. While that won’t mean total agreement from the families, it would be courteous and have better portrayed her intentions to show respect for the memories of those students whose lives were cut short by senseless rage. Towards the end of the film, ‘Dark October’ makes a mess of paying its respects to the Aluu Four—played by newcomers Chuks Joseph, Okpara Munachi, Kem-Ajieh Ikechukwu and Kelechukwu Oriaku—when a character in the film (who was close to the four main characters) directly addresses the audience about their death. It might have been a tearjerker move but instead, it served very little to honour to lives of the departed boys.
Films about real-life occurrences are nothing new. All around the world, filmmakers and directors are borrowing inspiration from the world around us and retooling this as digestible content for global audiences. This won’t particularly be the first time that Netflix co-signs a real-life story without first seeking the permission of the affected victims or family. Last year, the streaming giant came under fire for the release of Ryan Murphy-directed ‘Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story’ which failed to seek the permission of the families affected by Dahmer’s heinous crimes. One of the victim’s mothers Shirley Hughes told the Guardian: “I don’t see how they can do that. I don’t see how they can use our names and put stuff out like that out there.”
As Nollywood continues to expand its scope in terms of storytelling and production values, its key players must strive to ensure that they cover all bases, whether it be legal or moral obligations. Nigerian film producer Charles Okpaleke’s Play Network Studios have announced plans for upcoming films based on the 1803 Igbo landing and the 1993 Nigerian Airways hijack; it is hoped that Okpaleke (and his team) as well as any other Nigerian filmmaker interested in retelling true-life situations make the right choices and avoid the reoccurrence of the issues similar to Òlòtūré and Dark October. While it is great that the Nigerian film industry has positioned itself for a global audience, it is important to ensure that there are no skewed stories on offer.
Featured image credits/NATIVE