Nuba Wrestlers | Leni Riefenstahl
In my previous post, I wrote how the Kordofan and the Nuba that Rodger visited is no more. Arabs and Nuba no longer live as happy neighbours. Directly or indirectly, Rodger’s photos played a minor role.
Among many admirers of Rodger’s photos was Leni Riefenstahl, who had already been infamous for two films she made for Hitler when she was still in her early 30s. For a film project she was planning, Riefenstahl had offered Rodger £1,000 to tell her where he had found the Nuba. With the memories of Belsen-Bergen still fresh in his mind, Rodger refused, but she embarked on the project anyway, which left Rodger extremely bitter.
In Farewell to the Nubas he wrote: “The gradual deterioration of the Nuba tribes began with the publication of Leni Riefenstahl’s glossy and misleading books in glaring colour which attracted tourists and travel operators to the area. In their seclusion, the million or so Nuba people might have remained unmolested by the world. But revealed in coffee-table books in their uncircumcised nudity, that was more than the Islamic fundamentalists could accept.”
Nevertheless, a note on the dustjacket of Riefenstahl’s first book, The Last of The Nuba (1973) credits Rodger’s work for inspiring her: “The author was so fascinated by this photograph taken by the famous English photographer George Rodger [he was a Scot] that for years she tried to find the Nuba in order to study the life of these primitive people.” A personal note followed: “Without the influence of your picture . . . this book would be never [sic] printed. Now we both are friends of ‘our’ Nuba People.”
This dedication further enraged Rodger: “There is an awful lot of tongue-in-cheek in that because I did not help her at all. Mind you, I think her pictures were very highly professional. They were certainly good pictures but there was no warmth in them. My pictures were very much part of the family and the people themselves.” This criticism was shared by Susan Sontag. In her 1974 essay Fascinating Fascism, Sontag wrote that the Nuba photos were “continuous with her Nazi work”.
Unhappily, Riefenstahl’s portrayal of Nuba lifestyle certainly opened up Kordofan to anthropologists, photographers, and documentary filmmakers. It also provoked a clampdown by Sudan’s predominantly Muslim authorities, for whom the Nuba way of life was either an embarrassment or an affront to their religious sensibilities. Successive governments in Khartoum have tried to clothe the Nuba and do away with their ‘primitive’ ways. They also accused the Nuba of supporting the southern Sudanese rebels, and supported the Baggara — whose nomadic lifestyle has been battered by years of drought and the growth of mechanised farming which has taken over vast tracts of land — with arms to take over the fertile Nuba villages.