Mami Wata

Mami Wata

In C.J. "Fiery" Obasi's Mami Wata, black becomes a canvas onto which the director paints a propulsive and vivid narrative. The shade takes on new roles and meanings in this feature about brewing ideological differences in a fictional West African village. Black shadows the waves crashing the shores as one character contemplates the fate of her people. Black sharpens the designs drawn in white paint on the faces of villagers. Black portends the sinister, the vengeful, the hopeful and the renewed faith swirling within an allegory for the slow creep of modernity.

The film takes place in Iyi, the village where Mami Wata, the water deity of West Africa and its diaspora cultures, has reigned via her intermediary Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) for decades. Obasi begins his wily, supernatural tale with generational tension: Mame Efe's daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) storms out of their home after her mother responds to a village woman's pleas with vague sentiments about the balance of things. Zinwe doesn't understand why her mother won't use her powers to help the woman; her mother tries to explain the rituals by which they must abide.

Amidst this mother-daughter quarrel, a quiet anxiety has taken root within the village. The people of Iyi are losing faith in Mama Efe and, more generally, in the goddess Mami Wata. Obasi, who has made two other features and is a part of a new wave of Nigerian filmmakers who are stretching conceptions of Nollywood, has a knack for storytelling. Mami Wata maintains a steady narrative and balances its broader thematic interests — intergenerational anxiety, Western influence agitating established customs — with action and character development. The entire film is in Pidgin English, which brings a touch of melody to an already poetic piece.

Opposite Zinwe is her adopted sister, Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen), who is more reserved about questioning their mother's commitment to tradition. While Zinwe struggles with Mama Efe, Prisca lives her life — cavorting with a man who has been eyeing her and dancing into the morning at a local bar. She embodies an unforced free-spiritedness and a refreshing sensuality. Through these three central characters, Obasi portrays the dimensionality of women living in a matriarchy and invokes the multitudinous meanings of Mami Wata, a famously mercurial deity.

With the help of DP Lílis Soares, whose camerawork received a special jury prize at Sundance, Obasi mimics that exercise visually, pulling more meaning from the shades between black and white. In the charcoal night sky, Obasi and Soares see the mercurial moods of the goddess. In the obsidian forest where Prisca confronts the rebel group, they craft a metaphor for Iyi's turmoil and identity crisis. And in the onyx-colored waves, crashing against the sandy shores, they find the traditions of the past rubbing up against the siren call of the future.

— Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter

Mami Wata

Sponsored by Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS)

Wed October 11, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium

France, Nigeria, United Kingdom; 2023; 107 min

Director: C.J. 'Fiery' Obasi, Writer: C.J. 'Fiery' Obasi, Cast: Evelyne Ily Juhen, Uzoamaka Aniunoh, Emeka Amakeze, Rita Edochie, Kelechi Udegbe

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