Sexual harassment in Nollywood is an epidemic; but who will speak up?
This article breaks down why sexual harassment is hidden under the rug even though it is widespread.
“It would be living in some kind of Utopian space to say that it doesn’t exist [in Nollywood] ,” veteran actress Joke Silva said to Pulse during a conversation about sexual harassment.
“I think the situation is even more sick in Africa because men get away with a lot in this part [Africa],” Ghanaian filmmaker Shirley Frimpong-Manso said.
Following the recent revelations of sexual harassment by Media Mogul Harvey Weinstein of actresses such as Angelina Jolie, Lupita Nyong'o and Kate Beckinsale, several other film heavyweights have been exposed.
According to New York Times, over 38 women have accused writer-director James Toback of sexual harassment. There were also complaints about the Amazon studio chief, Roy Price and Nickelodeon’s “Loud House” creator, Chris Savino.
Popularly known as casting-couch syndrome, this corrupt culture isn’t just a Hollywood problem. In 2004, Bollywood filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar was accused of rape by actress Preeti Jain, who alleged that the filmmaker raped her 16 times for a role in his film.
Over the years, many Nollywood actresses have come out to talk about their experiences, but have refused to name the perpetrators. Filmmakers, investors, and powerful actors asking for sexual favours to advance careers is just a better-kept dirty secret in Nollywood. But it does exist.
Shirley Frimpong-Manso said she didn’t want to have a daughter because she does not want her child to go through what she did as a young woman.
“Even having a script and trying to get somebody to look at it, I'm first addressed as 'you're a pretty woman' instead of 'this is my work,” she said.
She would see how men would go through the door much quicker than she would because she is first a woman before anything else. "And it made me afraid to want to have a daughter,” she added.
Joke Silva recalled the experience of her intern, who she once took on the set of a Nollywood production.
“Some older actor goes to this girl and asks that they discuss, and she says 'fine.' But when he says where she should come for the discussion, she then comes to me and says 'oh, I have been asked to come to this hotel to discuss this and that.' And I say, "Why must it be in a hotel and why must you go alone?'
As a newbie in Nollywood, Blessing Egbe, who is popular for “The Women” and “Lekki Wives,” once had to slap off the “smelly hand” of a big producer/marketer, who caressed her breast when he saw her at a producer’s office.
Narrating her experience to Pulse Nigeria, Egbe said: “He walked in, looked at me for a while and said “nna this gal will be very god for epic feem ooo… I returned his words with a polite smile which he mistook for softness. Next thing, he came to me and started to caress me. The push slap that followed shocked the other producer who exclaimed “Ah, Blessing, that is big marketer Oh. And my reply? And so what?”
If you follow the paper trail, you will get to read about instances of sexual harassment and molestation in Nollywood. During an interview with Daily Post, actress Juliet Patrick Odigwe revealed that a popular producer asked her for six rounds of sex for six movie roles.
In 2015, Rahama Sadau took to Instagram to accuse Adam Zango of denying her of a role because she refused his sexual advances. She, however, apologized the next day, describing her post on a matter as sensitive as sexual harassment, as ‘childish.’
Just like the mainstream Nollywood in the early 2000s, the marketers and distributors are the most powerful in the Yoruba movie industry: They decide whose work gets seen by the public, and in turn, which actress becomes famous.
In 2016, Yoruba filmmaker Seun Egbegbe threatened to destroy the career of his ex-lover, Toyin Aimakhu, warning movie producers to end ties with the actress.
"Anybody that deals with her, the person is on his or her own. And I will act appropriately," he said. "Toyin Aimakhu’s career is finished as far as Yoruba movie sector is concerned," he added.
You only need Egbegbe's comments to ascertain how much power these movie producers and marketers wield.
And for most of them, it is an opportunity to exploit their power by dangling the promise of a job or a successful career in exchange for a sexual favor.
In 2014, Emeka Ike reportedly listed Emma Ogugua, Murphy Stephen, Sunny McDon, Okey Bakassi and Ifeanyi Dikeh as producers who demand sexual favours from aspiring actresses. An accusation that was denied by Bakassi during an interview with YNaija.
While sexual harassment against women is a much more prevalent situation, the nature of these predatory relationships is not strictly one-sided. Shame, cultural norm and the pressure to appear traditionally masculine are some of the reasons why men rarely share their experiences.
“I think we continuously talk about just the females, I think we need to also explain that there are male actors having their fair share of harassment. Especially, if they are a fine, cute boy," Frimpong-Manso said.
A filmmaker groping an actor. Another one spewing lewd comments on rehearsal set. So, if the casting-couch culture is as common as it is in Nollywood, why isn’t there more outrage about it? Why the deafening silence?
It is probably because victims are still being blamed by their abusers and the world as a whole. There’s also the fear of not being believed, and for an industry such as Nollywood, the knowledge that reporting a powerful abuser could “destroy” a career.
“They may feel that exposing these culprits may leave them jobless or blacklisted or ridiculed by others who feel it’s no big deal,” Blessing Egbe said.
“The reality is that it's scary. You don't want to go against someone like Harvey Weinstein. The guy was one of the biggest shot in Hollywood, so imagine someone like Lupita [a newbie and an African] when she narrated her experience,” Shirley said.
Weinstein denied Lupita’s claims that he had tried to "take off his pants" in front of her and asked if he could massage her.
Shirley recalled reading that New York Times’ Jodi Kantor, who turned the Harvey Weinstein ‘open secret’ into a big story, was bombarded by lawyers to drop the story for a long time.
The Weinstein’s case has something similar to several other cases of sexual assault and rape: people knew.
The cases of sexual harassment in Nollywood are known by a lot of people. Most of them excuse the casting-couch mentality with outrageous comments ranging from “it is not a Producer or director's fault if an actor decides to go the extra mile for the role’ to “it is what it is, an actor must pay his or her dues.
Blessing Egbe said that actresses who eventually become victims are coerced by producers, who list names of superstars who have ‘supposedly slept their way through.'
This brings to attention an important question: Why have we subconsciously normalized sexual harassment and rape?
Most cases of sexual abuse in Nollywood follow an apparent pattern: meet a young actress, schedule a private meeting and demand for sex in exchange for a career advancement. Most times, this pattern is facilitated by friends, assistants and employees of these "powerful" and "influential" perpetrators.
Normalization of sexual harassment in Nollywood is simply a reflection of a society, which over years, has tolerated an array of improper conduct, especially, from the men.
AY normalised Kemen's actions, saying that every man in his position would do the same thing."We should encourage this young man, he no kill person" Makun added.
After he came under attack for his "distasteful" and "insensitive" Joke, Makun apologized, adding that he is not a supporter of assault on women.
For years, men have always been given the carte blanche to get away with a lot of things; a feature that has perhaps permitted sexual abuse for years. For instance, while men get away with cracking raunchy jokes, cheating or showing off their bodies, women face backlash for doing the same.
“For some reason, even women, we accept this thing about 'a man dating or cheating on their wives and girlfriends,' and it's fine as compared to when a woman does it. And so men get away with a lot,” Shirley said.
"He is a man." "It's a man's world." "That's the normal thing for men" - These are the some of the excuses that have made these despicable acts seem 'normal.'
Unfortunately, unlike Hollywood, most Nigerians don’t have the influence that eases being heard. There’s even barely a reliable legal system in the country.
“So what defence does a person in Nigeria have? With the legal system that takes years… Please,” Joke Silva asked.
Victims in Nigeria are left with no choice but to protect themselves from sexual predators.
Describing the current happenings as a learning curve for everybody to watch themselves, she encouraged the younger actors to apply caution and always go for their casting with an audience.
"The kind of things that happen in a doctor's office: a male doctor doesn't examine a patient without somebody else being around. So if you go for your casting, there should be other people around," she added.
“Women don’t support women” - a stereotype or a reality?
As a filmmaker, who has had to seek fund for her projects, Shirley considers the above-mentioned a reality that plays a big part in the tales of sexual harassment in Africa.
She doesn’t think that women in higher positions are doing enough to help younger women, as it probably would be easier for an actress to see a man than it would be to see a woman.
“I don't think women in higher positions are helping younger women, and so, we put them at the mercy of these things,” she said.
“I know this because I'm always knocking on doors and trying to get sponsorship. And I think it's easier to get the attention of a man. And first and foremost, it's not because they think it's a woman coming to see them.
It's just easier getting an appointment to see a male CEO than it's probably easier to see a female CEO.”
Frimpong-Manso believes that if sexual harassment is tackled from this angle, the industry would be correcting it on a much bigger scale.
Surprisingly, in most cases, it is the actors, who offer sexual favors in return for career growth.
Mercy Macjoe once told Vanguard that actresses with nothing to offer are actually the ones who harass the filmmakers in exchange for a film role.
Filmmaker and actor Solomon Akiyesi told YNaija that the actresses seduce the directors and not the other way round.
In 2016, Yoruba actress Opeyemi Aiyeola said women are mostly responsible for the cases of sexual harassment in Nollywood.
Filmmaker Mildred Okwo said that some actresses actually offer producers sex to advance their careers, adding that it isn't sexual harassment if the "victim" initiates the act.
An anonymous source in the Yoruba movie industry said most actresses, who are usually more interested in the fame than acting, offer producers sex for roles in their movies.
"90% of the time, it's the women offering the men sex for roles in the Yoruba movie industry," she said. An offer most marketers and producers accept because, "it's free sex," she added.
Apparently, in Nollywood, an unsuccessful career can lead to desperation, which in turn could foster silence and compliance with sexual harassment.
Often times, it is the case of the powerful filmmaker versus the desperate up-and-coming actor - when the powerful isn't demanding for sexual favors, the desperate is offering.
Also, some actors in dire need of fame or a movie role leverage their sexuality for powerful filmmakers to exploit.
“When you're young, and you are desperate and you don't know what lies ahead of you, you go for anything. So the caution is that 'do not let your desperation lead you astray because there are a lot of bad people out there," Frimpong-Manso said.
She added that after a lot of experience, one gets to realize that when someone says 'come to the hotel,' it amounts to nothing.
Shirley Frimpong-Manso also added that most actors have made it more about the fame than the work, giving grounds for sexual harassment to grow.
"People just want to be famous, they want to be on Instagram, they want to have 10,000 likes and followers, and that's how come all of these bad things are festering and having grounds to grow," she said.
The truth still remains that sexual harassment isn't just about Hollywood, Nollywood or Bollywood — it's a wide-reaching problem that spans across gender, status and occupation. Most women/men have either experienced it or know someone who has.
From social media to the workplace, school, public bus and even marketplace, women have found themselves as targets.
With the expose on Weinstein, a hashtag #MeToo was created to encourage women to share their experiences of harassment in their own industries — It has been tweeted over 500, 000 times.
Joke Silva said there is no industry in the world where part of the skill of being a professional woman is being able to let people realize that when you say 'No, I'm about my work,' you really mean it.
Nevertheless, the aftermath of the Weinstein case seems to be a strong sign that the world’s perspective on sexual abuse is shifting.
Joke Silva opined that the conversation is beginning to change because there are repercussions, even several years later, as seen in Harvey and Kevin Spacey case. Men are beginning to understand that sexual harassment isn't their right.
However, in the emotionally charged conversations about sexual harassment, Frimpong-Manso hopes that the power to speak up isn't abused. In 2017, Jemma Beale was jailed for falsely accusing 15 men of raping her.
She said popular people or those who have worked so hard are at risk of branded what they are not.
“If we are not careful, a lot of innocent people will be caught in this web of people coming out to say 'this person did this, this person did that to me,” Shirley said.
She clarified that she isn’t holding the fort for men or women in this circumstance as everyone is at risk of being falsely accused.
It is, however, important to note that the cases of these false accusations are rare: only about 2% to 10% of all reports are estimated to be false.
Just like several industries, sexual harassment is lurking in Nollywood - it's the industry's 'little' dirty secret.
But all the Nigerian film industry needs is one bold victim to expose tens of Nollywood’s Harvey Weinstein.
But who will speak up?
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