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Junior Pope’s drowning forces Nollywood to look at safety
Junior Pope’s drowning forces Nollywood to look at safety
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Junior Pope’s drowning forces Nollywood to look at safety

The last video that Nigerian actor Junior Pope made for his more than two million Instagram followers eerily foreshadowed his death.

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“You see the risks, people, we take to entertain you,” the 42-year-old shouts above the noise of a small motor boat as it speeds along the River Niger.

He laughs - it is not clear if it is out of joy or nervousness - and tells the driver to slow down.

“I am begging the captain, that I’m the only child and I have three boys,” the actor - whose real name was John Paul Odonwodo - booms as he notices with alarm some water coming into the boat.

The next day the Nollywood star was dead. He drowned in the same river, after a boat he was travelling in collided with a fishing canoe.

Four others, including film crew members, were also killed.

The death in April of one of the biggest names in Nigeria’s renowned movie business - he had more than 100 films under his belt - sent the industry into shock. (Related articles Junior Pope: ‘It’s not a Nollywood disaster, people die every week’ – Actor Ugezu, Only son, father of three, prophecy; more info about Junior Pope)

Actors have since been speaking out about Nollywood’s poor safety record and calling for change.

Nollywood is the third largest film industry in the world - after Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

It produces more than 2,500 films a year: some are by large, established production houses, but there are dozens of smaller companies riding on the coat-tails of one the country’s huge success stories.

After the fatal accident, the Actors Guild of Nigeria immediately responded, saying that all filming in and around rivers would be suspended indefinitely.

It then called for safety standards to be implemented and observed.

Junior Pope was travelling in this boat on the day he died, according to an official investigation (NSIB)

A preliminary report into the capsizing from the Nigerian Safety Investigations Bureau released last month found multiple failings:

the driver was not certified to operate the boat

the boat was not registered

only one person was wearing a life jacket

that passenger, one of eight survivors, had brought the life jacket on board themselves.

In a now-deleted Instagram video posted soon after the incident, the film’s producer, Adanma Luke, said she had been told there were life jackets and Junior Pope was offered one but did not take it.

 “I have been so traumatised. I have been so cold. This whole thing still feels like a dream to me. I wish I could still wake up from this dream,” she said in the video.

She later wrote: “My heart is shattered in pieces as I write this… I find myself praying, how can we turn back the hands of time?”

Ruth Kadiri, a top actor, producer and screenwriter who knew Junior Pope well, says he tended to be happy and "extremely hyper".

“He always brought in the positive energy… and I think he was really loved by all,” she told the BBC’s What in the World podcast about her friend.

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She went on to say that incidents like the one that killed Junior Pope are far too common in Nollywood.

Kadiri remembers an incident when she almost drowned during filming - making her think about the fear the actor “must have felt at the last minute of his life”.

“I had to shoot a movie so we couldn’t use life jackets," she says.

“I asked the team if everything was OK and they said the canoe was fine. So I got on the boat, they started to paddle, and the canoe just tumbled into the river."

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She was saved by a colleague who grabbed her in the water.

The star, who has more than six million Instagram followers, is now calling for change.

However, she says she understands the temptation for actors who want to get on to do something that is potentially unsafe.

“We all do crazy things for the love of this job. We do things we normally would not do.

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“As you grow, you learn to put your needs first. Not because you don’t like the production, but because if something goes wrong, that’s the end of it.”

Kadiri says that safety is an industry-wide issue but whereas the bigger, well-funded productions can take measures, many smaller operations are unable to afford the extra costs.

In order to improve things, she suggests that a safety regulatory body should be established that can have people on film sets.

“The director is thinking about creating the content, the actor is thinking about getting in character, so let us create an extra body. It might save a lot of stress.”

Actor Chidi Dike says Junior Pope’s death was “an awakening to all”.

 He agrees that “safety hasn’t been taken very seriously”, but notes that there have been some improvements.

He has noticed that directors and producers are now trying to make sure filming does not go late into the night, which in the past has meant dangerous night-time journeys home.

“Everything is risky... driving very fast. There was one time I was coming home really late and I almost got into an accident," he told the BBC.

"But it is better now."

It is an unexpected legacy for the effervescent actor with a huge catalogue of films, but Junior Pope’s final video may well turn Nollywood into a safer place to work.

 

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