by Osamudiamen Joseph
Back in 2018, the British Film Institute called Surreal 16, “the filmmaking collective trying to forge a new identity for Nigerian cinema.” And while the group which is made up of independent filmmakers, Abba T. Makama, Michael Omonua and C.J Obasi, has seen some success in the past with releases like Visions (2017), Green White Green (2016) and Hello, Rain (2018), Juju stories is hard proof that the trio’s efforts have more than paid off, cementing their status as cinematic arbiters of the hypnagogic and phantasmagorical.
Juju stories, produced by Oge Obasi, premiered at the Locarno Film Festival where it won the Boccalino d’oro for Best Film before screening at the just concluded Africa International Film Festival in Lagos, to a theatre packed with filmmakers and film enthusiasts alike. The movie is an anthology just like their 2017 outing, Visions.
The first story, Love Potion, directed by Omonua, follows an unmarried woman who employs some nasty juju to force the hand of her impassive love interest. In Yam, Makama holds up a mirror to a jungle of a neighborhood where the consequence for picking up strange money from the ground is getting transmuted into a tuber of yam, and the consequence for picking it up and eating it is hell on earth. Suffer the Witch, directed by C.J Obasi, is the story of a young college woman and the witch who is enamored with her.
The cinematography by Femi Awojide (Sugar Rush, The Smart Money Woman) is the right admixture of intimate and distant, of personal and cold, as extreme Bergman-esque close-ups are juxtaposed with wide shots that isolate the characters, reducing them to tiny details in the frame. There is a Lovecraftian feel to these shots as well, as the characters seem hopelessly swallowed up by the intense bizarreness of their situations. Apart from Bergman, the filmmakers populate every inch of their film with references to Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kubrick, Haruki Murakami and even Nnedi Okorafor. The dexterity and authenticity with which these influences are blended together never permits the movie to devolve into a game of spot-the-reference (even though this is can be a fun and rewarding game for the initiated.)
However, where lesser films (especially those with a surrealist slant) have simply hurled references and imagery at the wall in the hope that a couple of them stick, Juju stories goes deeper by understanding that it is not enough to put up signposts pointing to different cinematic masters and movements; what matters more is getting at the heart of those influences. For instance, Yam begins and ends with a reimagining of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting, The Scream, in the center of the frame. The idea for the iconic painting which symbolizes the anxiety of the human condition was inspired by Munch “sensing an infinite scream passing through nature.”
Makama, also, in Yam, seems to be capturing the anxiety of the human condition as experienced in Nigeria. The movie seems to be channeling a scream passing through the country, emanating from deep in the souls of citizens, especially in the wake of disaster after grave disaster. Makama had this to say about his work in a 2016 interview with The Guardian:
“Satire comes easy for me considering how enigmatic Nigeria is; there’s so much juxtaposition. You walk out of a mansion and right in front of the gate there’s someone selling agege bread to the gate man. So much suffering and smiling, as Fela would say.”
Juju stories is more than a collection of pretty pictures and sound. Its worlds and themes resonate not only with Nigerians or people of Nigerian descent but also with different peoples around the world. That’s the beauty of art after all; the more particular you make something, the more universal it becomes. Praise too needs to be accorded to the actors across all three stories who ground the story and make the world feel lived-in. At every moment, the story-world of the movie feels slightly off-kilter; there is a pervading sense of things being not-right, of the world being several degrees off its axis and while the music has a large role to play in this, the performances from the actors do a lot to complement it.
Juju Stories is a mix of surrealist elements and magical realism. Here, the dreamlike and nightmarish occupy the everyday, and fantastical elements are combined in a matter-of-fact manner with realistic occurrences. Nnedi Okorafor once said of her writing style: “Technology is just another form of juju in my stories. I feel they are naturally merged. Especially in African culture. To be African is to merge technology and magic. That’s a bold statement but in my experience as an African, the mystical and the mundane have always coexisted.”
In Love Potion, when Mercy (Belinda Agedah) tells her friend about her predicament, she responds immediately with an air of practicality and slight annoyance. Something along the lines of: “Why don’t you use kayan mata?” Suffer the Witch ends with the main character, Chinwe (Bukola Oladipupo), and the alleged witch, Joy (Nengi Adoki), floating out of a classroom, in a way that recalls a moment from Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) where Leia floats through space and back into her spaceship after a deadly blast.
The latest movie by Surreal 16 does a pretty good job translating the Nigerian reality, where the mystical and the mundane walk arm-in-arm, to the medium of film. According to one Nigerian on Twitter, “Salvador Dali has nothing on Lagos. Everywhere you look is a surrealism heaven.”
Ben Okri, surrealist of Africana, once said: “Africa breathes stories. In Africa everything is a story, everything is a repository of stories. Spiders, the wind, a leaf, a tree, the moon, silence, a glance, a mysterious old man, an owl at midnight, a sign, a white stone on a branch, a single yellow bird of omen, an inexplicable death, an unprompted laughter, an egg by the river, are all impregnated with stories. In Africa things are stories, they store stories, and they yield stories at the right moment of dreaming, when we are open to the secret of objects and moods.”
Film is the medium of dreams. Hollywood, during their Golden Age, was referred to as the ‘dream factory.’ According to Elizabeth Cowie, a British film scholar, ‘Even though we’re conscious when we sit in a theater, we’re still in a passive position—immobile, silent and attuned to only those stimuli arising from the film… oblivious to other events around us, while the demand to test for reality, is placed in abeyance.’ With Juju stories, we hardly need to suspend our disbelief or “test for reality.” Like Okri and Okorafor have made clear, these ‘juju’ stories are our reality. Their eccentricities and themes resonate with us because at the end of the day, when it comes to these kinds of stories, we’re all the initiated. Like the Surreal 16 trio, we’re all “open to the secret of objects and moods.”