by Booker Sim
JuJu is west African magic. And JuJu is a creative collective I started with childhood friends Alexandre Trudeau and Malcolm Hearn. My name is Booker Sim. And this is the story of JuJu.
In 1997, the three of us graduated from philosophy and were looking to put theory into practice by uncovering the secrets that bind humans to their world. Around that time, journalists were obsessed with the wars in Liberia in Sierra Leone, especially the colorful “JuJu Warriors” they blamed for the conflict, needing no more proof of their guilt than their crazy outfits and belief in strange African “JuJu magic” said to make them bulletproof and invisible.
For us, too, JuJu Warriors held a strange fascination. But after researching Liberia’s dark history of slavery and oppression, we discovered that the first JuJu Warriors, who appeared at the beginning of the conflict in the early 90s, were mostly orphans and indentured workers (from diamond mines and rubber plantations) using ad-hock African rituals to give meaning to the chaotic world into which they were thrust – of which the war was just an outgrowth. African spirituality re-mixed, if you will.
So ten years before “BLOOD DIAMOND,” we boarded a plane for “The Worst Place in the World” to embed ourselves with these Warriors — and try to understand how JuJu gave shape and meaning to their world. The results of our six months in Liberia and Sierra Leone was not only a documentary, but deep and lasting insights that inspire us to this day.
What we learned in West Africa is that it’s almost as if JuJu allowed young jungle fighters to go directly from pre-modernism to post-modernism, skipping the enlightenment altogether – in favor of the kind of spiritualized technology, brand religions and schizophrenic capitalism associated with Gilles Deleuze, post-structuralism and the most exciting new brands, media and open-source creations. Through JuJu, the barriers between “primitivism” and “futurism” are broken down (as are all barriers, if the JuJu is strong enough), and instead new rituals, myths, tribes and talismans are constructed from whatever the global warrior finds at hand. Not shaped by tradition or precedent, but by whatever generates energy, insight, power, being – or, as we call it, JuJu.
A JuJu Warrior sees no difference between the traditional protective JuJu charms given to him by his shaman and the Nike sneakers bestowed on him by global capitalism. Both give him power, help keep him safe in battle, inspire him, give shape to his world, and allow the JuJu to flow freely through the constantly changing states that make up his “self.” War dislodged the bondage of the rubber plantation and diamond mine and gave them access to traditional JuJu magic and initiation rituals – such rituals themselves having been ripped up and placed in a blender with the cultural talismans of globalization (most notably, fashion brands, Hong Kong action films, hip-hop music and CNN). The protective, beautifying JuJu “energy” was no longer held in place by tradition, but, via the chaos of war, mixed and mingled with all manners of different JuJu-like energies from around the world – to the point where it was no longer useful to talk about JuJu as traditional African magic, but instead to think of it as the ever-changing post-structural energy that gives vibrant cultural forms (cities, selves, faces, brands, rituals, movies, music, virtual communities, collectives) their intoxicating aura. And, given our training in the phenomenology of Hegel and Heidegger, we understood this aura to have more “reality” than things like tables, chairs, t-shirts, guns and butter.
For us, JuJu is a universal concept, and is evoked by words like “fly” “cool” “ill” and “phat” in the urban jungles of America as well as similar words in the slang of other neo-tribal temples (that is to say, JuJu is not a Black thing: it’s as present in Tokyo as Harlem or Africa).
So, THERE ARE NO RULES. ONLY WHAT MAKES JUJU. In the global arenas outside Liberia, JuJu is at work mixing high and low technology, spirituality, global media, money markets, schizophrenia, animal spirits, video games, sex and witch dances. It’s the ultimate in open-source creation and re-mix culture, and knows no boundaries.
But while JuJu isn’t a Liberian phenomenon, our time there allowed us to develop a method for unearthing JuJu – which can be applied to practically any context, no matter how seemingly foreign.
PHILOSOPHY is our starting point. Through vigorous research and the use of the most open and radical philosophical systems, we “deconstruct” our target cultures and “disclose” the forms of being that animate the lifestyles and beliefs of their members. We’re then able to begin rapping our minds around why people do things we find strange (like fight wars or believe in magic).
With and open mind, we then EMBED ourselves in (often very dangerous) real life situations with (often very dangerous) people, discussing key cultural beliefs with as many of them as possible — then, slowly becoming more intimate by sharing their food, their rituals, sleeping in their homes, until we meet a few individuals who touch us deeply (often on opposite sides of a conflict). We then enlist these kindred souls, and the communities that surround them, into creating a work with us – an interactive creation whereby different cultures work to understand each other, and ideally, fill each other’s lives with inspiration. And with any luck, this authentic, inspirational dialogue comes through in our work, and our JuJu name deserved.
This method, which we’ve used in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cuba, Iraq, Serbia, Israel and Palestine, China, Syria, Haiti, Russia and the ghettos of New York, was coined – in an ironic sense – by Alexandre Trudeau when he “embedded” himself with a family in Baghdad, instead of with the US army – using “embedding” to connote deep and authentic communing with Others (Iraqis), rather than the bland act of reinforcing sameness (of the American media/army perspective). And those we embed ourselves with are not just used and tossed away once our work is done: they become friends, political allies, even member of the JuJu tribe (we met two members of our collective while shooting “BELGRADE: ONE YEAR AFTER” in Serbia and another member in Baghdad). Strictly speaking there are six or seven official members of our tribe. However, we seek an open ended collective vibe where creative individuals from all over are made to feel welcome: not just people who actually make movies with us, but also philosophers, musicians, shamen and friends who have inspired us over the years.
So, AUTHENTIC, INSPIRATIONAL ENCOUNTERS flowing freely through our post-structural neo-tribal world – that’s what JuJu is about. Supposedly diametrically opposed cultures that turn out to have compatible JuJu coming together to enrich each other’s lives through a work of art, a movie, a documentary, a brand, a cause. Risking life and limb in search of truth, beauty and community. Sacrificing ego and authorship in favor of new kinds of communaly made meaning. These are the things JuJu stands for.
Truth be told, this kind of inspirational, interactive dialogue only comes through slightly in traditional “auteur” documentaries, which has been our primary focus to date. And work that is “by Booker Sim” or “by Alexandre Trudeau” simply doesn’t allow for these inspirational dialogues to be heard clearly enough. However, we are now stepping into the brave new world of open-source, remix and interactive media, applying our JuJu method in hopes of bringing inspiration to interactive encounters so often dominated by the fetishization of technology instead of the connecting of people.