Ladan Osman Accuses Filmmaker Joe Penney of Theft and Sexual Harassment

The issue surrounds a short film she worked on with him and the Malian artist Abdou Ouloguem. Both men, she said, created a hostile and sexist atmosphere for her.
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Ladan Osman by Joe Penney.

Ladan Osman by Joe Penney.

The Somali American poet Ladan Osman has spoken out about what she has described as theft and attempts to control her film work. She made these claims in a Twitter thread last week, listing instances of the abuse and legal threats she has faced since February this year, from an American journalist and filmmaker named Joe Penney, who was her partner for four years.

The issue surrounds Sun of the Soil, a 2020 short film that she worked on with Penney and the Malian artist Abdou Ouloguem. The story follows Ouloguem as he explores the legend of the 14th century Malian emperor Mansa Musa, the richest person in the history of the world.

Osman stated that she worked on it with no compensation from 2017 to 2020, as a writer, co-director, and producer, and that she owns 50% of it. However, she only discovered that Sun of the Soil was on Netflix through Instagram.

According to Osman, Penney and Ouloguem did not have a clear story before she joined the project, but she was assigned only credit as the writer of the film right before its Netflix release. Despite Osman working in a directorial capacity by leading several key pitches, writing and partaking in the execution of the frame and shot lists of the film, contributing to its edits and being involved in every phase of the production, Penney is listed as the sole director of the film.

Penney said that Osman did not contest the credits, but Osman has insisted she did, and that she asked for mediation from their advising producer and was met with Penney’s lack of cooperation. She tweeted audio clips of their conversation.

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Osman signed the rights and distribution agreements for the film in 2020 and 2021, she said, due to the pressure she was under. “Fights broke out when I tried to speak up,” she wrote. “I just wanted the film to do well, and gave in.”

Penney is not the only one she has called out. She said that, in 2020, he attempted to give Ouloguem the co-director credit over her. Penny and Ouloguem had embarked on a photographic collaboration on Mansa Musa in 2014, before Ouloguem asked her to join the film project. 

Osman has accused both men of creating a hostile and sexist atmosphere, particularly after she refused to deliver the script for another proposed collaboration in 2021.  

Joe Penney by The Pulitzer Center.
Joe Penney by The Pulitzer Center.

Aside the controversy over directorial credits and a toxic workplace environment, Osman said Penney is also in wrongful sole possession of over $33,000 worth of the film equipment they co-own, claims ownership of a Mansa Musa series script she began in 2019, gave himself an undue co-director credit alongside her for another film Sam, Underground, and producer control over the documentary The Ascendents despite Osman’s pitches, directing and administrative input.

Penney, Osman said, has also refused to sign releases on her poetry videos, which she directed and he filmed.

“On top of using a lawyer to silence me as he went back on his word, I was informed on April 28, 2022 that Joe Penney is claiming I’m okay with his thefts, and have an emotional fixation on him,” she wrote. “This is sexual harassment and I need it to stop.”

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She quoted Penney as calling her manipulative and dangerous. “Think about what it means for him to say this to a Black Muslim immigrant woman,” she wrote. “I have rarely felt unsafe.”

Although she fought the injustices, Osman said she eventually acquiesced when the two men threatened to leave the project when it was almost finished. She had invested her time and money and did not want to jeopardize the project.

The ordeal has had a toll on her, she said. She received a cease and desist from Penney on February 14, 2022, accusing her of lying and making threats.

“I’m calling all of you in as witness to amplify my voice, to witness abuses that are far too commonplace, and to help me keep control over films that I made despite the violence Joe Penney continues to exact,” Osman wrote. “I now need a lawyer to advocate for me as an investor and to eventually be paid.”

Penney himself has released a statement denying Osman’s allegations. Osman made another Twitter thread in response. The dispute remains unresolved.

CORRECTION (May 30, 2022; 7:25 pm WAT): This report initially wrongly stated that Osman and Ouloguem embarked on a photo collaboration on Mansa Musa in 2014. It has now been amended to state, correctly, that it was Penny and Ouloguem who did the photo collaboration.

Paula Willie-Okafor
Paula Willie-Okafor is a staff writer at Open Country Mag. She is a student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she is custodian of The Writers' Community (TWC). Her writing has appeared in Kissing Dynamite Magazine and Praxis Magazine.

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