BY ROTIMI FAWOLE
The late Dr. Stella Adadevoh, is widely credited, together with her team, with being the reason that the Patrick Sawyer and his deadly bodily cargo of the Ebola virus was largely confined and Nigeria had a much easier time of it than many of our neighbouring countries in West Africa. She paid the ultimate price with her life unfortunately, as she herself was not able to escape infection. When news emerged that a biopic celebrating her life and heroism was in the works, the consensus was that few were more deserving of such recognition and in fact, a conversation began about the dearth of movies celebrating the lives and times of our national icons.
Today, her family released a statement distancing themselves from the production, for reasons including being shown the script only after production had been completed, inaccuracies in the plot, depiction of her husband and son without their consent, disclosure of private information and the fact that the family did not approve of the use of Dr. Adadevoh’s name and likeness. The family concluded the statement by saying that they intend to hold the filmmakers responsible for any falsehoods and innuendos in the movie 93 Days.
The family obviously feels a deep sense of hurt at this time and this is understandable. However, the situation throws up interesting legal questions about rights, clearances and consents when making films based on real people.
The very first question that comes up is, is it a legal requirement for family consent to have been obtained before shooting the movie? The complicated answer, in summary, is NO, consent was not strictly required, but this however, this does not mean that there is no possibility of unfavourable consequences for the filmmakers. I shall try to explain.
Under Nigerian law, there is a constitutional right to freedom of expression and to disseminate information without interference. However, it is now widely known (trite, as lawyers like to say) that no rights are absolute. One may have the right to say whatever one likes but that does not mean that there will be no consequences for what one has expressed. On the flip side, there is also the constitutional guarantee of a citizen’s right to the privacy his/her home, correspondence and electronic communications.
If there are truly inaccuracies in the plot, in a manner which defames the deceased, ordinarily there would be a cause of action against the movie producers. It would not be enough for the film makers to have taken artistic license with the story – the inaccuracies must also be libellous. There is however the legal question of whether the estate of a deceased person can bring an action for defamation. The general answer to that is NO, as the right of an injured reputation (which is what the plaintiff claims in a defamation suit) is a personal right, which is extinguished upon death. The same can be said of the question of whether or not Dr Adadevoh’s privacy was invaded with the disclosure of her private medical records. Ordinarily, it is a violation of a person’s privacy for their information to be made public. However, in this circumstance, the position of the law is generally that it is a personal right and it is not an action that can be maintained by her surviving relatives.
The final question, as it pertains to her son and husband is, can you depict living persons in a film without their consent? Yes, under your right to express yourself freely, but said living persons are entitled to protect their reputation and seek legal redress for any defamatory inaccuracies or disclosures which have invaded their privacy.
So where does this leave the matter? I do not believe that there are any precedents for this in Nigerian case law, so if a suit is indeed filed post-release, the court will be guided by the manner in which other common law jurisdictions (typically, the UK, the US, Australia, etc.) have treated similar cases. In those countries, while the position of the law as it concerns the applicable rights is virtually the same, best practice is to obtain clearances where possible. Even where no wrong has been committed, the bad publicity is clearly something that the filmmakers could have done without, especially in a society as sensitive as ours, and with the memory of it all still fresh. It also is the case in Common Law countries that people who are no longer alive can generally not sue for defamation or invasion of privacy, so the late doctor’s family’s recourse in this instance may be limited to how her surviving family have been portrayed in the film.
For the makers of the film, to my mind, the options they are faced with are: (1) releasing the film as is (if they believe that everything portrayed has been done accurately and in a non-defamatory manner); (2) taking the concerns of the family into consideration and re-editing the movie to remove any inaccurate scenes/information; or (3) working directly with the family and their representatives on reaching a mutually acceptable result for both sides.
It is my hope, as I’m sure it is with the wider public, that the matter can be resolved with as little rancour as possible. Dr Adadevoh’s story and the role she played in keeping a deadly disease at bay is far too important, too iconic, not to be told, and we look forward to the celebration of her legacy on film.
Rotimi Fawole works in Lagos as a commercial and media/entertainment lawyer.