Evelyne Ily appears in a still from Mami Wata by C.J "Fiery" Obasi , an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

MAMI WATA (SUNDANCE): C.J. Obasi Aims for Transcendence in Cinematic Ode to West African Folklore

Fundamental to African codes of storytelling, folklore tales have always been integral to African societies’ abilities to confront their current or past social order. A select few contemporary African filmmakers have made it essential to suffuse their work with this long-lasting legacy. Nigerian Director C.J. Obasi is no exception to what he believes should become a ubiquitous practice in contemporary African Cinema.

Making its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section, Obasi’s third feature, MAMI WATA, presents an opportunity to explore the perennial African mythological figure from which the film’s title gets its name. Described as a visually sensual fantasy film, subsequently, MAMI WATA seems to exist in a space between the real and the unreal; almost hallucinatory, yet grounded in reality. It’s a trick Obasi pulls off confidently, likely stemming from an understanding of, and deference to the folklore.

Set in a fictional oceanside West African village community called Iyi, MAMI WATA stars Rita Edochie as Mama Efe, Iyi’s Mami Wata intermediary whose authority is questioned when she fails to revive a boy taken by a fatal illness. Even Efe’s daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) and protégé Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen), become skeptical of her abilities. An insurrection is afoot, led by the belligerent Jabi (Kelechi Udegbe), whose ideology clashes with that of Mama Efe’s. Thematically, the age-old battle between African tradition and so-called Western modernity looms throughout.

The main conflict — the pro-and-con duality intrinsic to technological progress in a post-colonial context — is further complicated by the sudden arrival of a man with a mysterious past named Jasper (Emeka Amakeze). And chaos begins to reign among the people of Iyi.

“As the film isn’t entirely about disparaging ‘westernness’ and neither is ‘westernness inherently white, the crux is about balance and harmony, which is why Mama Efe, who embodies tradition and the spiritual, is not without fault,” said Obasi, speaking to the film’s commentary on a cultural and societal clash that’s common across Africa and much of the Global South. “Jabi and his crew embody the negative side of modernity, who use what ought to be the positive sides of modernity — tap water, electricity, good roads, hospitals — to sell and ingratiate themselves to the people, while their intention all the while is to usurp power for selfish gains.”

Considering the omnipresence of the folklore throughout the continent, there’s a scarcity of African fantasy films centering Mami Wata or Mami Wata-like spirits. Among the few notable titles is KARMEN GEÏ (2001), by Senegalese filmmaker Joseph Gai Ramaka.

The film follows the titular Karmen, a young, fiery, free-spirited being, who, like Mama Efe, serves as a sort of intermediary between humans and a local Mami Wata-like water spirit called Kumba Kastel. A key difference is that Karmen’s bond with the water spirit transcends the realm of spirituality, and is rendered tangible through genealogy: Karmen is adulated as the granddaughter of Kumba Kastel.

Anchored in their respective cultural contexts, both directors employ female water spirits as mediums through which they rigorously question the traditions of post-colonial African societies, while also seemingly prioritizing indigenous practices over contemporary notions rooted in colonial subjugation.

Obasi’s particular gaze locks in on the tension between a community seemingly under the protection of a matriarchal spiritual order as embodied by Mama Efe, and a so-called modern, aggressive, technologically-driven patriarchal insurgence embodied by the intermediary’s main dissident, Jabi. On many occasions, this tension is depicted as only surmountable with a return to one’s true sense of self.

Zinwe’s character trajectory accentuates this point. Initially critical of Mami Wata’s seeming apathy to the suffering of Iyi’s people, Zinwe disavows the water spirit. She apparently joins a hedonistic group primarily concerned with the pleasures of life, intent on drowning her sorrows. Yet, she remains tormented until she finds her way back to herself and to spirituality.

And in the end, the “balance and harmony” Obasi spoke of is presumably achieved as a matriarchal order of leadership is returned and sustained, even as some form of likely irreversible transformation lays in wait.

In that regard, the film serves as an opportunity to celebrate African women while exploring new possibilities of a cinematic and social nature.

“Every time I try to remember my mother telling me stories, my sisters telling me stories, I remember how hooked we were listening to those stories, even the beats,” he said. “Within those fables, you have dramatic beats. In this film, you have cinematic moments reflecting this tradition.”

It is that same pursuit of authenticity that also informed his decision to have his characters speak primarily in West African pidgin English.

“Pidgin is very much integral to the story of West Africa because of travel and a particular trading history,” said Obasi. “So I felt, in making a story about West African folklore, or West African spiritual belief system, pidgin would be something that connected the entire thing together.”

A seven-year journey, bringing MAMI WATA to the screen was a tedious process, especially when it came to a most common difficulty: funding. Further complicating Obasi’s path was that the Mami Wata legend has become taboo in contemporary Nigeria, thanks to long-established colonial religious practices that disrupted the country’s socio-political tapestry.

“This is in a way unique because, even though Nigeria has a rich cultural heritage and traditional spirituality, these beliefs are largely eroded by Christianity and Islam,” he said. “And the old ways are now considered evil and demonic.”

The plus side of this financial reality is that the filmmaker used the constraint as an opportunity to finetune his filmmaking language, even as MAMI WATA wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve.

Rita Edochie appears in a still from Mami Wata by C.J “Fiery” Obasi, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Immediately striking is the film’s theatricality and overall visual flair. Portions feel as if they were filmed on a set built specifically for its purpose. And shot compositions make it so that the spatial dimensions or geographical location occupied by characters in a scene are at times ambiguous.

It’s an artificiality that is not at all disguised. On the contrary, Obasi seems to invite the audience to become aware of its artifice, made even more conspicuous by the black-and-white cinematography and chiaroscuro lighting techniques favored by German Expressionist filmmakers.

“This is how I received the story,” he said. “In examining the process of the story, the script, all of that. I also went on a self-reflecting journey that took me back to my childhood and my love for black and white cinema.”

Obasi’s intent with MAMI WATA is clear-eyed in a film that is meticulously considered — admirable, even if only for how majestically the mythology is generally captured.

“​We had to rethink everything we already knew about cinema, aesthetically, or stylistically, or even with framing and things like that,” he said. It’s a sentiment that gels with late Senegalese filmmaker, and African cinema pioneer Djibril Diop Mambéty’s decades-old call on African filmmakers to reinvent cinema as the result of a continuous search for an African film language. Or, in this specific case, a “Nigerian film language” that demands the same kind of interrogative appreciation that film languages primarily rooted in Eurocentrism are afforded.

“At the end of the day, what we wanted to do was try and reinvent codes and challenge expectations about what you think African cinema should be, and perhaps give an opportunity to a new path for new possibilities,” Obasi said.

Given the visual and contextual layers of the material, repeat viewings should be rewarding, even as pacing, especially in the first half of the film, could be hastened by shortening or eliminating overly contemplative sequences.

MAMI WATA aims to deliver a transcendental experience — not so unlike the encounter that prompted the filmmaker’s decision to tell this story.

“The vision of Mami Wata hit me in January 2016,” said Obasi. “I could see this glorious image of the goddess standing by the Ocean’s shores, in all her glory and beauty as she calls for her long lost child, who must return to her. I saw this image in deeply contrasted monochrome, and knew exactly the story I wanted to tell.”

What followed was a process of immersion that served as an education on how ancient the legend of Mami Wata is, as well as how much the goddess transcends mundane definitions of good and evil. In fact, the belief system rooted in the deity’s characteristics enabled the director to lean into the mythology intent on contemplating the current spiritual and socio-political state of affairs in Nigeria and across West Africa.

“What I wanted to do with the film was to question notions of morality, of good versus evil, light versus darkness,” he said. “Those questions are for sure there, but to have this deity, Mami Wata, transcends all of that. And to have [Africans] placed in this world where they had a model to aspire to was important to me.”

Produced by Oge Obasi for Fiery Film Company Ltd, MAMI WATA screenings in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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