LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Juju Stories takes an anthological approach to its storytelling, introducing three short films that focus on hocus pocus. The “juju” of the title refers to the purportedly magical customs or traditions in Nigerian folklore. The segments are written and directed by a trio of filmmakers, who are all part of a cinematic collective known as Surreal 16.
Juju Stories opens with Michael Omonua’s Love Potion. This follows a young woman who decides to brew a special tea designed to make her crush feel the same passion for her. But, as with most potions of this sort, it results in unintended circumstances. The middle sequence, Yam, directed by Abba T. Makama, is the most esoteric of the trilogy. Set on the Nigerian city streets, it focuses on a displaced street dweller (with electric-green hair) who encounters a large sum of unclaimed money. After taking it as his, the man realizes there are dire consequences attached to his newfound wealth.
We finish strong with the final act from filmmaker CJ “Fiery” Obasi. He is perhaps the most well-known name of the group, having broken onto the scene in 2014 with Ojuju, Nigeria’s first zombie film. Suffer the Witch is about a young college student (Nengi Adoki). She goes to great lengths to get noticed by the object of her affection but soon realizes that passion and love are distinctly different.
“…three vignettes that dealt with the more magical elements of Nigerian culture.”
While not entirely successful in its delivery, Juju Stories is more interesting for its voices behind the cameras. The three directors who make up Surreal 16 have vowed to produce “auteur cinema more attentive to the script, inspired by traditions, legends, and costumes typical of the place, Nigeria. A land and a people to which this movement wants to restore pride, a reason to be known abroad not only for political and social problems but for an ancient and extremely fascinating culture.” They are aiming to produce films that defy the traditional Western definition of Nigerian cinema.
Inspired by Dogme 95, the group is guided by 16 rules of filmmaking such as no movies about weddings, no slapstick comedy, avoiding melodrama, must-have an African perspective, and must not be religious propaganda. Juju Stories breathes authenticity with enlightened female-focused leads in its three tales that are steeped in Nigerian culture and wrapped in magical elements. Even though the finished product may not appeal to Western society as a whole, it is a striking, if uneven, experience that shows raw talent and energy.
Juju Stories presents portraits of independent women filled with courage and doubt, all in culturally rich settings grounded in realism and magic. Surreal 16 is unafraid to accentuate the flaws and imperfections both within its characters and the country around them. The film boldly defies Hollywood-inspired tropes and narratives, relying more on the artistic sensibilities of the filmmakers and actors for inspiration. It feels all the fresher as a result.
Juju Stories screened at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival.
"…presents portraits of independent women filled with courage and doubt..."