‘Juju Stories’: The Surreal 16 Collective’s Latest Offering Puts A Fresh Spell On Nollywood

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Michael Kolawole

Juju Stories, the anthology of films by the Surreal 16 Collective is a fascinating shift from Nollywood cockeyed stories. The anthology is a follow-up to the Collective’s 2017 Visions, a subversive collection with mystic appeal and grandeur. Through a particular kind of abstract representation and spiritual references, the films in Juju Stories portray everything from major life events to pedestrian activities, making them look like tapestries of otherworldliness. The directors blend different influences and styles to narrate their stories and brilliantly challenge the notion of logic, albeit with little glitches. They find beauty, chaos, sorcery, and death in the world of Juju Stories. The anthology is divided into three parts; Love Potion, Yam and Suffer The Witch. Each film riffs off Nigerian folktales and urban myths to create beautiful fetish stories that unobtrusively excites and scares the audience.

I. Love Potion

Written and directed by Michael Omonua, this first film is simple and thought-provoking. Omunua lends the spirit of a poet to everyday love affairs. The film is a meet-cute story that is more of infatuation, lovelorn, and heartbreak. Mercy (Belinda Agedah Yanga) meets Leonard (Paul Utomi) at a party and is smitten by him. She can’t stop thinking about him. She envisions them getting married and starting a family together. For Mercy, Leonard is becoming not so much a person but more an idea, a concept. He is a mental trauma in her head that’s almost devouring her thoughts. In real life, Leonard is not into her as he has a fiancée and a wedding is at hand. But Mercy won’t give up. She follows a friend’s advice and seeks spiritual support to win Leonard.

In Love Potion, Omonua’s meticulous ability to create something magnificent out of mundanity and elicit unobtrusive performances shines bright. The film is a dose of poetic, extraordinary, breathtaking achievement without a false note in it. Shot through well-curtailed humor and ideas, the event of the film tosses and turns until it burns out to an alluring ending. The skillfully written screenplay, the director’s sense of direction and vision, the characters’ discipline, the cinematographer’s expressionist camera work — the framing of the camera perfectly blends with the lyrical and dreamy acting. The tilted, low-angle shots engagingly represent the characters’ dilemmas — and the sense of structure makes Love Potion terrific and hearty. 

With Omonua’s writing, the screenplay shows instead of telling; employing visual imagination to elevate the film into the realms of hopes and dreams. The film is not so much a movie about infatuation as it is about romance. The project carefully examines how differences in lifestyles can make a love affair go awry. The best thing about the film is that it doesn’t end as the Nollywood formula demands. 

Belinda Agedah and Paul Utomi’s performances are calm and impactful. It’s impressive how they reflect their anguish and dilemmas with every part of their bodies. It’s alluring how they let their eyes reveal the battle within their souls, and their silence echoes the smithereens of their hearts. With a well-written screenplay, adorable characters, and inspiring music, Love Potion captures the viewers’ attention and redirects their minds to an important message that should not be neglected.

II. Yam

Chaotic and esoteric, Yam symbolizes the avarice and the anxiety of humans. The film opens and closes with Makama’s replica painting of Edvard Munch’s famous 1893 painting, The Scream. Written and directed by Abba T. Makama, the film follows the life of an avarice street urchin named Amos (Don Ekwuazi) and a greedy vulcanizer, Tohfik (Elvis Poko). Amos and Tohfik have a brief, insignificant encounter when the former runs past the latter’s roadside shop. Tohfik makes fun of Amos inane running, unbeknownst to him that their fates are intertwined. Amos would later pick up cash by the roadside and metamorphose into a tuber of yam. Tohfik finds the tuber of yam, takes it home, cooks, and eats it. 

With Yam, Makama opens all doors to the irrational and brings out events that excite, enthrall, and scare the audience. One obvious thing about this film is that its visual language is private and hermetic; it’s a dreamlike tableau, a subtle interpretation of Makama’s replica painting of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Incongruous with reason, as with The Lost Okoroshi, Makama seems to be telling us that understanding a film is not synonymous with enjoying it. But what’s an enjoyable film that’s hard to comprehend? 

As the film begins one is confused about its intent. At first, Yam’s narrative seems wonky (the scenes where Amos roams the streets, begs and extorts money from passersby seem improvised and lack direction). But as the incidents unfold, Makama stabilizes and twists the stories. He immerses us in his stylized mese-en-scène and shades of color, each set piece becomes more irrational. The light hardens; the editing changes from slow, mesmerizing showmanship to bizarre, nervous twitchiness; the actions get insanely uglier, and pernicious. Even the music switches from classical compositions to woozy, clanging, discordant, and climaxes with a more inane scream of the lead characters.

Bizarre and beautifully juxtaposed, each scene is like a surreal painting that’s merged into a film. And as the chaos climbs and the painting falls to the floor, it dawns on us that the film is a subtle interpretation of the painting. The symbolism is fascinating, though there are glitches in its continuum of narrative and the actors’ performances are a bit scratchy. 

III. Suffer the Witch

The cute and relatable characters are what give CJ Obasi’s Suffer The Witch a dreamy appeal. Obasi is bold and assertive with the portrayal of the female’s obsession with one another. Although the film is surreally inclined, Obasi redirects his gaze to old Nollywood campus melodrama. The opening voiceover of the lead Chinwe (Bukola Oladipupo) musing that her friend and roommate, Joy (Nengi Aidoki) might be a witch, set the dark mood that entails the film. As the story unfolds and the tension intensifies, the eerie Joy sends us a clear message: she is an enchantress (in both senses of the word) and she is ready to harm anyone who tries to come between her and Chinwe. But Chinwe is in love with Ikenna (Timini Egbuson). Joy is having a secret affair with Ikenna but is obsessed with Chinwe, and will do anything to keep her to herself. 

As the series of events develop, we see how Joy gets rid of Ikenna and his cultist friends who try to avenge Ikenna’s death and protect Chinwe from her. First, she hexes Ikenna, his car crashes and he dies. Second, Ikenna’s friends disappear after they approach Chinwe in a library and promise to “suffer the witch”, meaning to get rid of eerie Joy. The screenplay for Suffer The Witch is simple but daring. The film’s hues of colors and light and cheerful music set the mood for its unusual story. The characters put up their best performances. Nengi Adoki’s character as the lively but eerily Joy is arresting. Unlike the stereotypical Nollywood witch that is usually ugly and dirty, Joy is cosmopolitan, beautiful, and brilliant. Bukola Oladipupo as Chinwe is mild and affable. And in his playboy trope, Timini impressively enacts his role. 

Although the stories are typical Nigerian folktales and urban myths, the directors do not shy away from proclaiming their influences outside the country’s shore. In the opening minutes of Love Potion, Mercy references the Japanese mysticism novelist, Haruki Murakami and constantly talks about one of his novels. Like Salvador Dali, Makama blends art with filmmaking and bridges the gap with his painted filmmaking experiment. The incongruity and the metamorphoses of the characters in Yam give it a Kafkaesque or Lynchian appeal. C.J. Obasi’s Suffer The Witch bears the bones of an old Nollywood campus film but brilliantly twisted into a psychological horror. And for the accident scene, where Ikenna transitions from living to dead, C.J. Obasi subtly reverses Jordan Peele’s popular ‘Sunken Place’ scene from the movie Get Out. 

One might question the illogicality of the films in Juju Stories. For Love Potion, one might ask “isn’t the love potion supposed to make Bernard love Mercy unconditionally and blind to all her shortcomings?” Also one might doubt the logic behind a man turning into a yam after picking money from the ground and another man going insane after eating said yam. Judging by the illogical template of Surreal Films and the mysterious workings of Juju, whatever happened in these films defies logic. What matters is not the directors’ goal of surrealist verisimilitude or supernatural forces that put the audiences at the edges of their seats, but the innovation of old myths and Nollywood rusty tropes couched in styles as experimental and avant-garde films that fascinatingly blurs the lines between facts and fictions. And though the films in Juju Stories bear the air of Magical Realism, they are more of Magical Feelism. The directorial styles are varied, yet their gazes and intentions remain the same: to disrupt, to rearrange, and to inspire.

With Juju Stories, the Surreal 16 Collective eschew melodrama by eliding moments that would often be used in Nollywood as attempts to stir an excessive emotional reaction from the audiences. Instead, they subvert the industry’s tradition and cast a new spell on it.

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