CJ Obasi’s “Mami Wata” is truly enthralling – Michael Kolawole

C.J. Obasi’s award-winning movie Mami Wata, loosely based on the West African folklore of the water goddess, subverts a genre to tell a story of spirituality, politics, and faith.

The story unfolds in the fictional West African community of Iyi, where the inhabitants embrace traditional beliefs in the Mami Wata. Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), serves as the spiritual leader and faith-healer of the goddess as well as the political figure of the community.

Trouble begins for Mama Efe when a child dies from avoidable death. The incident sires doubt and confusion in Mama Efe’s faith and family, prompting her daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) to fiercely question the river deity’s supposed power. Zinwe’s adopted sibling, Priscilla (Evelyn Ily) takes a more subtle approach; she quietly doubts the deity’s power. She also suggests a modernist approach to solve the community’s problems.

Away from Mama Efe’s family, Jabi (Kelechi Udegbe), the village youth leader, spearheads a populist and modernist movement to topple Mama Efe’s reign as the community’s spiritual and political guardian. Mama Efe grows restless as scrutiny deepens around the potency of the river deity  and her political domination.

As Mama Efe and the community strive to come to terms with the failure of the water goddess a man named Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) is washed ashore. Mama Efe nurtures him back to life. His presence seems to restore hope to the community. But is he the saviour sent by the water goddess to reassure her faith in the people or is he not?

An ex-pirate struggling with his demons, Jasper is a cunning figure who  observes the political and spiritual strife in Iyi before strategically positioning himself as leader of the rebellious faction led by Jabi.

Obasi’s directorial touch is deft, intelligent and tenacious. He is adept at merging various perspectives; the folkloric, religious, political, and modernist, bringing them all together to create an all-encompassing metaphor for the Mami Wata. It’s truly enthralling to see how he weaves everything together seamlessly.

The intricate interplay between spirituality and modernity, embodied by the characters of Mama Efe, Jabi, and Jasper is admirable. Mama Efe and her daughters represent the deep-rooted traditional practices and spiritual beliefs, symbolizing continuity and connection to ancestral heritage. Conversely, Jabi epitomizes the allure of modernity, advocating for progress and change within the community. Jasper, the cunning ex-pirate, embodies a fusion of both worlds, utilizing traditional knowledge for personal gain in the modern era. Obasi deftly portrays the clash between these ideologies, illustrating the complexity of cultural identity and the enduring struggle between the binaries of tradition and modernity in the contemporary world.

Aside from the ferocious men who try to topple the feminine mystique of Mami Wata and disrupt the community, the film’s strong female voices and perspectives lend clarity and depth to the protagonists’ Prisca and Chinwe journey towards reclaiming their land and religion from usurpers.

However, the film’s attempts to navigate complex emotional terrain fall short due to a flaw in the screenplay, written by C.J. Obasi. The film’s slow-burn narrative and the long stretches of languorous exposition in the first act, makes it a bit dull. Overly cautious in order not to appear melodramatic, some of the actors present lacklustre performances that are hard to miss.

The actors’ delivery of specific pidgin dialogue feel forced and unnatural, occasionally failing to capture the nuances of their interactions.

Nonetheless, the film has redeeming qualities. The cinematography is visually appealing and has been widely acclaimed for its stunning black-and-white image. The textured and tactile approach taken by the cinematographer Lilis Soares in lighting and framing is particularly noteworthy. The way she captures the beauty and diversity of Black skin of all shades adds allure to the film’s folkloric inspiration. The film’s unique and detailed costuming also adds to its aesthetic while the haunting  score adds a funereal atmosphere to the proceedings, heightening the film’s sense of melancholy and reclamation of faith in the violent third act.

 Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is truly unique in creating a new world, probing our perceptions of what a Nigerian film should be or not be. With its craftsmanship in storytelling, directing, and cinematography, Mami Wata is devoid of the archetypal Nollywood filmmaking. It pushes boundaries to redefine our perceptions of Nigerian cinema and to have a lasting impact on the film industry.

Mami Wata is streaming on Mubi, BFI Player, and Prime Video. 

** Michael Kolawole is a screenwriter, playwright, poet, and cultural journalist/critic. He is on X @mykflow


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