For us to grasp the immense value of motifs to storytelling in the Nigerian film industry, we have to understand where the Nigerian film industry began, where it has been, where it is now, and where it is headed. Allow me to use the vehicle of motifs to walk through four distinct phases of Nigerian cinema so far. The goal is to trace the use of motifs in Nigerian film storytelling over time, using “Juju Stories,” a 2021 horror anthology film, as the driver.
“Juju Stories” is an anthology of three short films, produced and directed by the Surreal 16, a three-man collective: Michael Omonua, Abba T. Makama, and CJ ‘Fiery’ Obasi. Coincidentally, Obasi’s new film, “Mami Wata,” a 2023 supernatural thriller inspired by West African folklore, premiered at Sundance last month — the very first feature by a homegrown Nigerian filmmaker to do so, marking the importance these three avant-garde filmmakers are to the contemporary Nigerian film scene.
Several decades into the past, the Nigerian Cinema phase, which had its golden era between the mid-1950s and the late 1980s, boasted pioneer filmmakers such as Francis Oladele (who launched Calpenny-Nigeria Films, the first indigenous film production company in Nigeria), Hubert Ogunde (a theatre manager turned filmmaker), Ifoghale John Amata (a playwright turned filmmaker), Eddie Ugbomah (a film director), Ade “Love” Afolayan (an actor and producer), Ola Balogun (a scriptwriter, cinematographer, and director), Jab Adu (a scriptwriter, actor, and producer), and Tunde Kelani (a cinematographer turned director).
These filmmakers had the luxury of making films at a time when folklore storytelling was still a signature sociocultural activity. Some of them had come from the theatre. One thing common in folklore storytelling was motifs which these filmmakers employed extensively in their work, via folksongs, symbolism, mannerisms, verbal cues, sonic tones, etc.
For example, we see the use of a powerful symbolic motif in “Freedom,” a 1957 political drama, about the fight for political independence in colonial Nigeria; directed by Englishman Vernon Messenger from a script co-written by and starring Ifoghale John Amata (the patriarch of the Amata dynasty in Nollywood), as Mutanda, a revolutionary chief. In the film, the lead character, Adamu (Manasseh Moerane), a wealthy chief, persistently shows his defiance towards colonial British authority, by clothing himself in traditional attire, on his various visits to the Governor (Lionel Jardine) and his trip to Geneva for an intercontinental conference.
By the dusk of the 80s, a handful of economic factors had led to the decline of the Nigerian Cinema phase. The most prominent factor is the crash in oil prices. Purchasing power crashed. Cinemas crashed. Cinema culture crashed.
Enter the Old Nollywood phase, the late 80s and early 90s. At the dawn of this phase, a successful accidental experiment was carried out by three filmmakers: Okey Ogunjiofor (a struggling scriptwriter turned filmmaker), Chris Obi Rapu (a TV director), and Kenneth Nnebue (an astute electronics marketer). The product of their alchemy was the 1992 Nollywood classic supernatural thriller, “Living In Bondage,” which became an instant critical and commercial success nationwide, and across anglophone West Africa. This phase marked the first time movies made in Nigeria went straight to VHS/home video, bypassing theaters.
This phase’s heydays were between the early 90s and the late 2000s, boasting other filmmakers including Ruke and Fred Amata (scions of the Ifoghale John Amata dynasty), Tunde Kelani (prodigy of Ola Balogun and Hubert Ogunde), Zeb and Chico Ejiro, Amaka Igwe, Opa Williams, Izu Ojukwu, Andy Amenechi, Kingsley Ogoro, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, and others. Albeit, Tunde Kelani, and Izu Ojukwu kept filming on celluloid, most of the time.
The driving story behind “Living in Bondage” stems from urban folklore about the proliferation of the occult in big cities across Nigeria, and how they lure unsuspecting ambitious young men.
Many of the filmmakers in this phase were still heavily influenced by the filmmakers of the Nigerian Cinema phase. Hence, they understood the power of motifs. This was evident in “Living In Bondage.”
One example that stands out is a verbal motif: a recurring tale at different times, by different people, about Chief Omego (Kanayọ O. Kanayọ) sacrificing his mother for money rituals — a foreboding sign that Andy (Kenneth Okonkwo)’s association with him wouldn’t end well.
The 1999 supernatural thriller “Above Death,” produced by Uzodinma Okpechi and directed by Simisola Opeodu included a standout mannerism motif: the intense deathly stare into the camera that Oli (Peter Bunor Jr/Ramsey Nouah) always gives before unleashing mayhem on his victims. This emphasizes just how dastardly and ruthless Oli is.
In the same year, “Igodo,” an epic adventure movie produced by Don Pedro Obaseki, and directed by Andy Amenechi, features a conspicuous sonic motif in the form of an eerie water bubble sound that always echoed before a deathly mishap befalls one of the seven warriors. This motif further enhanced the petrifying no-sacred-cow tone of the film.
Also in 1999, the epic adventure movie, “Vuga.” produced and directed by Simisola Opeodu displays a gesture motif, where the villain — a warlord called ‘Master’ (Segun Arinze) — always rolls his mustache into a twist, and blurts out the word “Idiotü!” when tormenting his captives or subordinates. It’s a sign of his unbridled sociopathic and psychopathic disposition.
By the late 2000s, folklore storytelling had already begun to see a decline as a socio-cultural activity, primarily due to inevitable generational shifts in traditional appreciation. Also, most Old Nollywood filmmakers who utilized motifs as functional features in their films were already past their prime. This shift would go on to negatively affect the storytelling of the next phase of Nollywood: Neo Nollywood.
The first filmmaker to herald this phase was Jeta Amata (a scion of the Ifoghale John Amata dynasty), with his 2006 historical drama “The Amazing Grace,” two years after Silverbird Cinemas struck soil in Victoria Island, Lagos, as the first modern cinema to reignite Nigerian cinema culture. Like the older scions of the Ifoghale John Amata dynasty before him, Jeta Amata showed his masterful storytelling ability in the film “The Amazing Grace.” He made use of a symbolic motif: a bird gliding through the sky at different intervals, as a sign of the passage of time, which further enhances the film’s themes about the natives being taken away from their lands as slaves, and eventually getting lost in time.
By 2009, Kunle Afolayan (a prodigy of Tunde Kelani) released “The Figurine,” a supernatural horror/thriller. Also known as “Araromire,” serves as a symbolic motif; a relic looming large throughout the story and showing its potency as a wealth bringer and an ultimate destroyer. It was after “The Figurine” that a disconnect in the use of motifs became visible in subsequent films, which begged the question of whether this was because filmmakers that came after were not directly influenced by the works of filmmakers from the older phases.
Storytelling in the Neo-Nollywood phase became so watered-down, instead emphasizing a pseudo-Hollywood style. Not rooted in Nigerian authenticity, it meant a near-death to the use of motifs. Glamour and aesthetics became ubiquitous tools, while storytelling suffered.
In the midst of the decline, a few filmmakers have created movies that have occasionally shown a glimpse of great storytelling of yore, such as Emem Isong, Chineze Anyaene, Obi Emelonye, Kenneth Gyang, Biyi Bandele, Mildred Okwo, Genevieve Nnaji, Niyi Akinmolayan, Jade Osiberu, Kayode Kasum, and others.
However, the period has been inundated with movies that, despite promise, failed to deliver in their use of motifs to enhance the storytelling. For example, in B.B. Sasore’s 2017 action comedy “Banana Island Ghost,” there was an opportunity to employ a mannerism motif for the main character, The Ghost (Patrick Diabuah), which could’ve been depicted as a physical gesture showing restraint from the urge to habitually act out in aggression towards his God-chosen soulmate, Ijeoma (Chioma Omeruah) and her kind when he was alive. This motif could have helped the audience understand his struggle to accept his new reality, and also serve as a window into his rebellious nature.
Another example is in the 2021 crime thriller “Sanitation Day” directed by Seyi Babatope. A symbolic motif would have linked the gulf between the first and second halves of the movie. A motif such as an onscreen animated map of the street where the story unfolds, showing, at intervals, the progress of the tunnel digging, to parallel the progress of the two cops’ investigation in real-time. This will help lead the audience on a psychological journey to reconcile the tunnel-digging activity with the investigation activity, at the denouement of the story. Thus making the link between the first and second halves of the story seamless and believable.
Now some industry stakeholders might disagree with me on these empirical findings, but the facts speak for themselves. One just needs to visit the Cinema Pointer page on Instagram or Classic Nollywood YouTube channels to see Nollywood moviegoer outcries for storytelling reminiscent of yore.
Whilst the Neo Nollywood phase was in full swing, something else was brewing underground; a new phase, unlike any the Nigerian film industry, had ever witnessed.
I call it the dawn of the Alté-New Wave Nollywood phase introduced in Kenneth Gyang’s 2013 Comedy Drama, “Confusion Na Wa,” A mind-bending tale of two grifters and their ill-fated shenanigans. reminiscent of the 1998 comedy classic, “Yogo Pam Pam,” directed by Kingsley Ogoro.
In “Confusion Na Wa,” a symbolic motif (a mobile phone) drives the entire story. At first, the mobile phone seems harmless, but as the story unfolds, its significance grows, as the center of mayhem that propels the plot.
In 2014, the Alté-New Wave Nollywood welcomed a newcomer, CJ “Fiery” Obasi with his horror/thriller entry, “Ojuju.” In 2016, Abba T. Makama joined the fray with his arthouse comedy entry, “Green White Green.” And in 2019, Michael Gouken Omonua debuted with his visceral drama, “The Man Who Cuts Tattoos.” And together, these three young filmmakers became known as the Surreal 16 Collective, makers of the 2021 film, “Juju Stories.”
Omonua, Makama, and Obasi understand the immense power of motifs. This understanding stems from their being heavily influenced by their love for folklore, and their inquisition into the roots of the culture of their people.
We see the use of motifs to great effect in “Juju Stories” — a compilation of three short horror films individually directed by the three filmmakers — “Love Potion”; “Yam”; and “Suffer the Witch.” There are quite a number of motifs connecting all three stories; some glaring, others layered.
The smoking/drugs motif: in Omonua’s “Love Potion,” we see Mercy’s (Belinda Yanga-Agedah) carefree attitude to her cigarette smoking addiction. In Makama’s “Yam,” Abiodun (Uzoma Mike Ebuka) smokes marijuana with reckless abandon. And in Obasi’s “Suffer the Witch,” Joy (Nengi Adoki) leaves Ikenna (Timini Egbuson) and his friends Mark (Donald Ndubuisi) and Ebele (Duke Elvis) stunned in horror as she drags and puffs their last stick of marijuana carefreely, pro-style.
The integrative reminiscence style storytelling motif: in “Love Potion,” Leo (Paul Utomi) reminisces about how he ended up with Mercy. In “Yam,” we see a reminiscence of how Tohfik (Elvis Poko) first crossed paths with Amos (Don Ekwuazi). In “Suffer the Witch,” we see Ikenna reminiscing to Chinwe (Bukola Oladipupo) how Joy attacked and scarred his torso with her fingernails.
The food lure motif: in “Love Potion,” Mercy uses tea to cast a spell on Leo. In “Yam,” Tohfik attempts to cunningly abort his girlfriend Deborah’s (Valerie Dish) pregnancy, by serving her a yam meal laced with toxic herbal concoctions. In “Suffer the Witch,” Joy always suggestively lures Chinwe to go get ice cream with her.
Finally, the strange woman motif: a peculiar-looking woman (Roseana Adenuga) delivers comeuppance to the unfortunate victims in all three stories: in “Love Potion,” she is the mortuary attendant who sells the water off a dead body to Mercy, as an ingredient for preparing the love potion. In “Yam,” she is the imaginary mad woman who gives Amos a hot chase, which ultimately leads him to his waterloo. In “Suffer the Witch,” she is the strange woman who points Ikenna to his death scene.
Two honorable mentions/new additions to the Alté-New Wave Nollywood phase are the 2020 riveting drama, “Eyimofe,” directed by the Esiri brothers (Arie and Chuko), and the visceral drama, “For Maria Ebun Pataki,” directed by Damilola Orimogunje.
One thing is now certain: if the present crop of Nollywood filmmakers is looking for proof that motifs are indeed very powerful storytelling tools, they shouldn’t look any further than “Juju Stories,” which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video for subscribers.
Ebukah Nzeji is a trailer editor, creative writer, film editor, and producer. He is the creative director and co-founder of Starmark Studios, a boutique film post-production and production collective based in Lagos, Nigeria.