Nuba Wrestlers by Leni Riefenstahl, 1975

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 and found the Southeastern Nuba tribesmen in three remote mountain villages in the south of Sudan.

It left Rodger extremely bitter.

“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.”

George Rodger, Farewell to the NUBAS

A note on the dustjacket of Riefenstahl’s first book, The Last of The Nuba (1973) credited 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 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, who wrote in her 1974 essay Fascinating Fascism, that the Nuba photos were “continuous with her Nazi work”.


Riefenstahl did put her heart and soul into the effort. The 73-year-old documentarian spent three months there — a place so hot that it was impossible for her or the tribesmen to stand still on one spot for longer than a short moment. By the end of her stay, Rietenstahl had heat exhaustion and was too weak to take any more pictures.

Like Rodger’s photos, Riefenstahl’s photos showed the men and women painting and oiling their bodies and the Nubas’ main sport of stick-and-bracelet fighting and the dances that followed it. The stick-and-bracelet fights were a fierce, bloody activity shared by the male tribesmen of all three villages. The fighters held sticks and had sharpened bronze bracelets, which they used to cut their opponents’ heads. The fight ended only if a contestant could not continue from loss of blood or exhaustion, or was stopped by a referee. The girls were not allowed to watch the fighting, but spent their time preparing for the post-fight, when they danced and picked a warrior as dancing partner for themselves (which would also signal a wish to meet the men later). The dance itself was erotic although the fighters were forbidden to watch them and had to stare at the ground while they waited to see if they had been chosen Any fighter left out registered his dismay with walls.

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. The govemment ordered that clothes had to be worn, radically altering the lives and traditions of this previously forgotten tribe, 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.

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4 thoughts on “Nuba Wrestlers by Leni Riefenstahl, 1975

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  2. Rodger was mostly Pissed for two reasons:

    HE knew that if Riefenstahl found the Nubas that she would take better pictures and Second,

    That After she found the Nuba, she took better pictures.

    I personally think his pictures are good…..but they are not great. Give any 12 year old a camera (Or ahem, just let them use their SMART-PHONES, and they will do just as well BUT compared to Riefenstahl’s (?)…Rodgers only make one say, “Hummmm…Look at them NAKED Africans!”

    Riefenstahl’s photos make the Nubas look heroic, cultured and fit for praise and admiration. Her style lifts them out of the realm of curiosity and places them on equal ground with the rest of the things we admire in the world (And thats what I think Burned his ass the most).

    Did Rodger bear animosity against Riefenstahl for being an unrepentant Nazi? Absolutely. But I believe that is almost beside the point. She was Better at the craft he hoped to aspire to and hoped to keep it secret so that it would always be his Provence. Proof of this hypothesis is that everyone who has gone there since has done as well, or better.

    Nazi or not, Riefenstahl was among the Best and Rodger, a wannabe. He only achieved notoriety because for a time he was the sole proprietor of a glory hole which as long as it was kept secret was his Provence alone but once found by other miners, mined with such aplomb that treasures uncovered exceeded his wildest dreams, proved to be his undoing, as evidenced by his own angst.

    Your Obt Svt.
    Col. Korn.
    Chief O” Mayhem in the Great WW-2 (And the Cold War)
    Now Chief O’ Security, Sanitation (And the Complaint Dept.)
    OXOjamm Studios.

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