Sundance: A priestess serves as a water spirit medium in this poetic drug, the first homegrown Nigerian film to debut at the festival.
Mami Wata is a multi-faceted figure whose personality is as diverse as the diaspora that respects her. The patroness of beauty, money and all tides, she is sometimes depicted as half woman, half fish. Other times he is shown with a giant snake on his shoulder. He is a relatively new deity that arose between the 15th and 20th centuries, a period when Africa became heavily involved in global trade. Its name comes from Pidgin English, the language of trade, and translates to “Mother Water”. He is a water spirit, ruling over the seas that separated captive Africans from their homes and brought foreign people and influences to African shores, and could be as benevolent or cruel as the ocean itself.
The Nigerian film “Mami Wata,” which describes itself as “West African folklore,” deals with the spirit in a number of ways. The story takes place in an isolated village called Iyi, where, as the title page at the beginning of the film informs, “there are fewer assumptions” about Mami Wata than in other places. The reputation of the “capitalist deity” is crucial to the film’s plot, which takes place during a period of tumultuous change like the one that produced Mami Wata. But that’s later. First, water.
Cinematographer Lílis Soares and writer-director CJ “Fiery” Obasi create breathtaking compositions, textures and tones using water and beaches in “Mami Wata”. In one shot, the ocean looks like textured stained glass. In another, drops of water glisten from a man’s forehead like a constellation of tiny stars. A beach at night has a completely different feel than the same place in the midday sun, and Obasi can change the tone of the scene by tilting the camera so the horizon intersects a different part of the image. The man-made world in “Mami Wata” also retains a patina of magic, as Obasi uses strong directional lighting to create artificial horizons on the walls and on the faces of his actors. Even better, it’s all done in expressionistic black and white.
Similar care is taken with the film’s majestic, statuesque hairstyles, stylized makeup and creative costumes. (The latter uses fabrics printed with bold, repeating geometric patterns, which Obasi incorporates into her compositions in eye-catching ways.) Costume designer Bunmi Demiola Fashina, key makeup artist Campbell Precious Arebamen and hairstylist Adefunke Olowu get theirs. The headlines end up alongside the film’s stars and top crew – a spotlight that doesn’t always shine on the hair and make-up artists, but here it’s well-deserved.
The story is a symbolically charged tale of female authority challenged by male predation, centered on a powerful priestess named Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) and her two daughters, Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) and Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen). There is more to these characters than Shakespeare, who are burdened by their obligations and take the pursuit of divine or other power very seriously. The most interesting of the group is Prisca, who is not Mama Efe’s biological daughter, but is nevertheless her most dutiful protégé. (Juhen is also the most compelling performer in the film, exuding an easy sensuality that ties her character to the goddess her family serves.) Zinwe takes over when her mother is no longer able to serve as a go-between for Mami Wata and the people of Such. But it was distant and no longer in tune with what the village needed.
In any case, their system cannot last long enough to be in a succession crisis. A young boy recently died of a virus in Ily despite Mama Efe’s healing intervention, and his certainty that it was Mami Wata’s will is no longer enough to reassure the villagers. They want amenities like electricity and hospitals (it’s not clear when ‘Mami Wata’ is set but the presence of these things suggests it’s pretty close to our present) and they’re running out of patience Mama Efe is careful for its modernization. Enter Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), a defector from a nearby rebel army who drifts into Ily and sees an opportunity to take over.
The resulting conflict pits matriarchy against patriarchy and the traditional against the modern, with Prisca and Zinwe in the middle. At times, the drama of “Mami Wata” can be stiff, as can the action choreography. But given that this is a revenge fantasy revolving around a Shakespearean power struggle, a little formality doesn’t hurt the film that much. (More disturbing is the revelation at the end of the game, which throws a hand grenade into the film’s already shaky gender politics.) If you didn’t give away too much before Prisca fully embraces her fate, a nod to naturalism would be completely out of the question. from place as ‘Mami Wata’ rises to the status of myth.
“Mami Wata” is the first play in the history of Sundance. The first homegrown Nigerian film to debut at the festival, it is the culmination of a five-year process that took Obasi and his wife/producer, Oge Obasi, to workshops and laboratories in Africa and Europe, including Final Cut in Venice 2021. The extra time spent developing the film pays off on screen: from the opening title to the final notes of Tunde Jegede’s score, “Mami Wata” is a work of art.
“Mami Wata” premiered at the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Seeking American distribution.
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