AV Club: Surreal 16’s ‘Juju Stories’ examines human stories at the centre of supernatural chaos
Three stories driven by familiar lore and open to interpretation
Three stories driven by familiar lore and open to interpretation
After a run of the film festival circuit, ‘Juju Stories’, the anthology film by the Surreal 16 Collective, was recently released in Nigerian cinemas. It is a film with many horrific elements but Abba T Makama, one of the three directors comprising Surreal 16, tells us he would call it supernatural rather than horror.
The three-part anthology film certainly has a grim, ominous tone at some points along with many things that are simply fantastical. The film uses familiar Nigerian urban legends or “juju stories” to tell sometimes horrific tales about various people, many of whom already don’t have the easiest personal lives. Makama says “everyone knows a Juju story,” and most Nigerians know much more than one. These are stories that feel familiar, stories grandmothers tell us before bed or we heard from peers who acquired them from their own relatives.
Supernatural stories have always been a mainstay in Nollywood, with films like ‘Nneka The Pretty Serpent’ considered iconic parts of the industry. More often than not however, these films are known for being particularly moralistic and over the top, both in writing and performances. ‘Juju Stories’ explores a different side of the supernatural. The three chapters of the film examine extremely human stories at the centre of all the chaos surrounding them.
It is no less than what should be expected by the filmmaking collective surreal 16. The members, Michael Omonua, Abba T. Makama and C.J Obasi, have made it their goal to create films that aren’t limited by the conventions of Nollywood, with stories about a wide range of topics. The three stories within the film, “Love Potion,” “Yam,” and “Suffer the Witch” all deal with different aspects of Juju.
‘Juju Stories’ opens with a first part that is written and directed by Micheal Omonua. It’s centred on one of the most frightening topics for young adults: love and dating. The story follows Mercy, a woman desperate for the affection of Leonard, an engaged man.
She is eventually convinced to take her desperation to the extreme by drugging Leonard with a love potion, that makes him fall into a deep infatuation with her. Mercy and Leonard move in together and all seems well at first. As we see their relationship progress, it becomes clear how misguided Mercy was in fixing her sights on Leonard, as the pair are obviously incompatible. She finally lets him go, her extreme measures seemingly for nothing.
‘Love Potion’ is interesting in how relatable its story is, regardless of the magical elements. A lot of the horror of the tale comes from the examination of the overwhelming pressure that women specifically feel to enter relationships, setting their sights on moulding mediocre or uninterested men into the man of their dreams. When men are seen as fixer-uppers, it never ends well.
There is also an extremely dark portrayal of Leonards situation. Love potions in fantasy stories have always seemed like magical roofies, even when portrayed in a light-hearted fashion. Here, Mercy essentially assaults Leonard, both mentally and physically, taking control of his motions against his will. But unlike most similar stories, this one examines how dreadful this is, with Leonards entire life being turned upside down. He leaves his fiancée to pursue his obsession with Mercy and when he is dumped he appears absolutely shattered being left incapable of moving on in ways that most people can.
The second part of ‘Juju Stories’, “Yam,” is directed by Abba T Makama. It follows two men, Amos and Tohfik, as they hustle in Lagos amidst rising cases of people turning into yams. Tales of people turning yam for pocketing money found on the street is familiar to most Nigerian audiences. These are the types of cautionary tales that parents tell their kids to scare them away from doing bad things.
Aside from that, however, there is nothing overtly familiar about Makama’s ‘Yam’. The story has the loosest structure of all three sections of the film, with scenes going on for great lengths. The way it refuses to be upfront about the themes also makes the film have the most wiggle room for interpretation. Makama stated that he wanted the story to be open to interpretation and just make people laugh. With campy performances from the actors, he certainly will have gotten his wish.
There are many ways the story could be interpreted. The story was bookended by a painting of screaming man, a painting by Makama himself. The screaming man could possibly represent the never-ending purgatory that many Lagosians find themselves trapped in. The poorer characters seem to be stuck in a state of hustling and suffering. They mock and consume each other in order to deal with their circumstances.
Tohfik takes out his frustrations on his female companion and mocks Amos. Tohfik accidentally eats Amos after he has been turned into a yam, and is driven mad by the voice of a tormented Amos in his head. Both he and Amos are bonded together in a never ending cycle of horror. The rich characters start and end the film, untouched by the turmoil we have seen on the streets of their city, casually reading about the supernatural occurrences on a headline. They sit in front of the painting portraying eternal, ongoing torment, yet unaffected.
Regardless of its intended interpretation, ‘Yam’ is a story that addresses class in a very unique way.
C.J Obasi’s ‘Suffer the Witch’ is the third and final story in ‘Juju Stories’. Set in a university campus, this part harkens back to more familiar Nollywood films of the noughties. It follows a girl, Chinwe, and her growing suspicions around her strange and obsessive friend Joy. The events in the story make her increasingly sure that Joy is not just acting strange, but a witch.
A confidently shot film, many scenes are extremely tense and unsettling. A feeling of anxiety looms whenever Joy is seen or even just spoken about. She creeps up like a ghost in several scenes. She is spoken about in a way that makes it seem like she is always watching, always lurking. She almost like a deranged toddler, appearing odd but harmless when she wants to, but has a terrifying darkness lurking beneath the surface.
Joy seems to make it her mission to isolate Chinwe. A fantastic performance from Nengi Aidoki makes Joy a truly terrifying character. She switches on a dime between the cloying, childish affectations of Joy and the unhappier person within. It is unfortunate that the film falls into the usual partnering of lesbianism and villainy, something that pops up in many films as a lingering effect of the Hayes Code in Hollywood, and religious puritanism in Nollywood. The fantastic performances and confident directing however allows the story to rise above this trope.
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‘Juju Stories’, overall, is an important addition to the more inventive films coming out of Nigeria, amidst the current emphasis on gloss in Nollywood. It treats the audience like adults and allows them to work through the themes without having their hands held. Abba states that “there are ways” in which the stories are linked, “but I’m not going to say it. The audience has to figure that out.”