Mami Wata: A Landmark Triumph In Nigerian Cinema

There’s been talk about a need for diversity of stories on the Nigerian screen, with other stories given a chance to shine on the big screen. We are used to having stories chronicling the lives of the obscenely wealthy, or following the wacky adventures of service staff as they navigate their (rarely done on screen) jobs and the gossip they glean off the happenings of the central story. With C.J Obasi’s third solo feature —Mami Wata—, we finally do.
Entertainment
January 10, 2023
Written By
Ifeoluwa Olutayo
In this Article

There’s been talk about a need for diversity of stories on the Nigerian screen, with other stories given a chance to shine on the big screen. We are used to having stories chronicling the lives of the obscenely wealthy, or following the wacky adventures of service staff as they navigate their (rarely done on screen) jobs and the gossip they glean off the happenings of the central story.

With C.J Obasi’s third solo feature—Mami Wata—, we finally do. Earlier this year, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, a first for a Nigerian Film, and it took home the Special Jury Prize in the World Dramatic Competition for the film’s cinematography. For most of 2023, it was on the road, earning critical acclaim at film festivals like the New Zealand International Film Festival, Brazil African Film Festival, Fantasia International Film Festival, Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), Filmfest München among others, winning three awards at FESPACO.

It was also the first Nigerian film to be nominated for Best International Film at the 2023 Independent Spirit Awards, a historic achievement in its own right.

The critically acclaimed film follows two sisters, Prisca (Evelyne Ily) and Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) in a small village, Iyi, who must put aside their lacking belief in their village’s guardian deity to fight for its survival when a rebel mercenary, Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) washes up onto their shores.

Their mother, Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) is the goddess’ intermediary for the village, and she struggles to keep the villagers rooted in the traditions of Mami Wata, as the powers apparently given to her in this capacity fail. Discontent and rumours fly among the villagers, and the food and money adherents offer to the faith dwindle every month.

There are still a number of faithful adherents in the village who—despite tragedy—still believe in the goddess who seems to have abandoned them, but decisions are made for them by those in the village who see the goddess’ intermediary as a poorly questioned prop-up of an absentee god. The small band of rebels are led by Jabi (Kelechi Udegbe) who believes that all of it is just Kakara (foolishness) and that Mama Efe is all that stands in the way of real progress.

What happens when modernity is driven by those with selfish interests? This is one of the conversations the film invites you to ponder over. It explores the rapid decline of spirituality and traditionality in our daily lives and the brutal rise of modernity in places that resist such changes. To set the record straight, it’s a nuanced exploration, as it also broaches the positives of modern living; medicine, electricity and education.

In the first act, Prisca, one of the daughters, invites a doctor to administer vaccines to the children in Iyi. Her mother, Mama Efe resists this effort, her reasons rooted in the fact that the goddess has never failed to protect them, and those lost (to the goddess) are merely called home by the One Who Gives. Despite this resistance, when Prisca gives the doctor access to the village, her mother notes it in conversation with a resigned acceptance; she muses that this, maybe this, is the will of the goddess. To Mama Efe, the prayers that seemed to go unanswered are finally answered.

The film also explores family and community, and what it means in a West-African context. Family here is not only a blood affair, but it is also one of acceptance, of choice. Mama Efe chooses to house a child displaced by war in her hometown, and she also chooses to house a man she finds washed up on shore. The latter choice is a catalyst for disaster born out of  growing resentment, but the former is one that truly saves her ocean-side town.

This folklore also pitches differing shades of womanhood, challenging the stereotypes of submissive African women. Our female protagonists are independent, free-willed women who also value family and community. Their vulnerability stems from doubts and shaken beliefs. Zinwe, headstrong in her abilities to succeed her mother and perform better, loses her determination and resolve with a shattering discovery. On the other hand, Prisca believes in her people and the woman who gave her a home when she had none, but is unsure about the faith her adopted mother holds dear. She is reserved about these doubts and she obeys her mother (mostly).  Service comes easy to her, but belief does not.

After all, what else can you give someone who called you daughter, who gave you a home?

These women are given stories independent of male-driven conflicts, and it is refreshing to see that done with grace and nuance.

The performances from Rita Edochie, Kelechi Udegbe, Uzoamaka Aniunoh and Emeka Amakeze bring vibrancy to the beautifully crafted tale, however, Evelyne Ily delivers a standout performance in the role of Prisca.

She plays the dutiful and strong-willed older sister who, despite her unbelief in the capabilities of the titular goddess, still pushes for her sister to do her duty to the aforementioned goddess. She brings a certain nuance to the role, the belief in right and wrong nestled between her unbelief in what she preaches to her sister, and no moment in which she graces the screen is ever lacking of that burden.

Another performance to point out is that of the ocean, with the role crafted masterfully by the director and his crew. Water in this tale is no bystander. It is characterised as a primal/ancient force of nature, which is on point given the titular deity the film follows. Its power and enormity, gentleness, and brutality pulls you in every single time it appears on screen. It’s a masterful use of visual storytelling that brings the cinematography forward.

Mami Wata is one of the best-shot Nigerian films of the last decade. It’s not only about how the matte-black and white film looks, with every frame dripping pure living poetry, the lights, hues and shadows truly appreciating the natural black skin, but it is also in how the camera moves. The black hues are complemented by the harsh, directional lighting employed by the cinematographer, Lílis Soares, with shadows thrown onto the scenes and characters, giving in some scenes an eerie composition. Given the lack of electricity in Iyi, scenes are also lit by fire and moonlight, all of which contribute to the eerie and menacing nature of the night.

The camera moves with intention, grace, a singleness of vision that is a breath of fresh air to film lovers. There is a scene where Jasper takes a bath and the water droplets captured on screen are beautiful against his pitch-black skin, and even as the scene progress, we see the eerie look on his face at being found out (this fear is rewarded with a reveal in the third act) and his resulting crisis of insecurity, as he clutches to the pendant of the cross that he wears on his neck throughout the film.

The Make-up and Costume Design are also immaculate; white cowries and make-up contrast heavily with the black skin, invoking beauty and a belief in the technical capabilities of those working in Nigerian film.

The music is also a high point. The score, written and performed by Tunde Jegede, a legendary composer and multi-instrumentalist, immerses viewers in the world of Iyi, the town where the story is set, and it elevates the scenes, creating a transcendent theatre experience. Through his music, the pain, betrayal, rebellion and acts in service of love that occur on screen are understood, and that is as perfect an experience as can be created.

The film is not without its issues. The introduction of Jasper as an antagonist is sudden, without the buildup accorded to Jabi, and his motivations move a little quickly, trying to catch up to the narrative. This results in a subdued narrative for Jabi in favour of the drive of an outsider.

The question of the titular goddess’ existence lies unanswered when Zinwe is almost drowned, but revealed in a critical culminating scene in the third act, leaving questions on if it would have been better left unanswered. These pale in comparison to every other aspect of the film though, and the ambition shines through, seated at the summit of Nigerian cinematic endeavours.

The film was acquired for theatrical distribution in Switzerland by Trigon film, a non-profit film distributor. The North American rights to the film were acquired by DEKANALOG, while its United Kingdom rights were acquired by Aya Films and Cinemalovers acquired the rights in Germany and Austria, slating the film for a January 11, 2024 release.

A multi-country theatrical release for a Nigerian film is a landmark achievement, and with the vision that has been realised here, it deserves no less.

Mami Wata is now showing theatrically in Germany and Austria.

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