By being steadfast to his vision to explore African political and religious realities, C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi’s Mami Wata is swimming outside its national shores.
The first C. J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi-directed film I saw, Suffer the Witch, is from a collaborative anthology, Juju Stories, made by the Surreal 16 Collective (S16) trio: Abba T. Makama, Michael Omonua, and Obasi. The three-part anthology, featuring Yam, Love Potion, and Suffer Not a Witch, explores well-reiterated Nigerian folklore and myths. Although at that time, I was unaware of the S16 Collective kinship with Dogme 95 film movement, and their creed which outlines their filmmaking convention, I could notice how different the films were from other familiar Nollywood titles. The films, at first glance, quickly established the wanderlust and distinct filmmaking approach of the filmmakers. And their brave and well-written stories have constantly attracted attention.
Their films—Rehearsal, The Lost Okoroshi, O-Town, Ojuju, Green White Green—more like the filmmakers, attracted a cult-like followership. Despite the critical acclaim Juju Stories received, including a mention in the New York Times list of Five Horror Movies to Stream Now, word-of-mouth praise for its uniqueness from other Nollywood films, an attestation to the S16 collective brilliance, the film attracted minimal mainstream attention in Nigeria. Yet, the filmmakers weren’t fazed. By telling personal stories hinged on experimentation, and exploration of divergent genres, they constantly distinguished themselves from a large crop of Nollywood filmmakers. It is this uniqueness, which marked their films, that keeps coming to mind whenever I reflect upon Obasi-directed Mami Wata which had its world premiere at Sundance International Film Festival in 2023.
AND THE TENSION BEGINS
Mami Wata tells the tale of the river goddess using the story of one of its intermediaries, Mama Efe (Rita Edochie). In Iyi community, Mama Efe, is the custodian of spiritual authority as well as political authority. The order of things is offset when the community witnesses the avoidable death of a child. This death occasions a disruption in Mama Efe’s family: Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), headstrong as her mother, begins to outwardly doubt the potency of the river deity’s vaunted power. Priscilla (Evelyne IIy), Zinwe’s adopted sibling, chooses a more diplomatic approach; rather than be expressive about her subtle dismissal of the deity’s power, she chooses to silently observe. As the river deity’s power is gradually being scrutinized, Jabi (Kelechi Udegbue), one of the villagers, leads a populist group calling for a political change in the outdated ways of Iyi.
Villages surrounding Iyi have embraced modernity—schools and hospitals—but Iyi is still in n its outdated ways. The reckless Jabi wants the village to yield the clarion call of modernity. A call that Mama Efe constantly rejects. As the film progresses, the flaunted gender-based dynamics between the headstrong Mama Efe and the bashful Jabi become glaring. Regardless, the film doesn’t focus on the gender disparities between Mama Efe and Jabi, the director (Obasi) who doubles as the screenwriter has other intentions. As Iyi gradually gets divided, Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), an ex-pirate battling internal crises, decides to live in the village. Paying attention to the political and spiritual conflict prevalent in Iyi, the innocently looking Jasper tactically installs himself as the new leader of the rebellious group headed by Jabi.
THE TENSION BETWEEN AFRICAN AND WESTERN RELIGION
Mami Wata, which will be remembered historically as the debut home-grown Nigerian film to premiere at Sundance, has screened and won awards in multiple continental and international festivals (PRIX DE LA CRITIQUE Pauline S. Vieyra (African Critics Award) at FESPACO and Special Jury Award for Cinematography). As important as this is, what keeps haunting my thoughts months after watching Mami Wata is how the filmmaker manages the religious tension inherent in the film. Mama Efe, the intermediary of the water deity, represents the gradually dying but powerful African spirituality while Jabi and Jasper represent the more alluring and vibrant modernity—Christianity, if I may. Although the film doesn’t present Jasper as a practicing Christian, the dangling crucifix on his neck casually teases his affiliation with the religion. In Obasi’s handling of this subject matter, he metaphorically writes Jabi, Jasper, and Mama Efe’s characters as emblems of this cultural and religious conflict.
Two points are worth reiterating: Christianity is a Western religion and African traditional religion, which is a totem and repository of our identity and history, is often given a footnote treatment. However, despite how external it is to our spirituality as Africans, Christianity and by extension Islam—has become one of the fabric of our existence. By writing the opposing Mama Efe and Jabi into the film, Obasi gives breath to the age-long colonial conversation about the place of Western religion and African religion in Africa. While Mama Efe and Jabi are unable to accept each other’s ideologies, the film presents Prisca. Prisca’s conflicted embrace of modernity and strong alliance with the female water deity teases the film’s treatment of tolerance and acceptance of distinct religions. On a larger scale, this instills the societal need to be accepting of others whose religious beliefs are different from ours.
There is a blend of contradictions and conflicts in Mami Wata. Mama Efe and Jabi’s conflict brings these questions to the fore: Why did Mama Efe hold firm to her religion despite facing hostility from worshippers? What harm would have occurred if Mama Efe had accepted Jabi’s incessant request to introduce schools and hospitals to the village?
LILIS SOARES’ BRILLIANT CINEMATOGRAPHY
The socio-religious undertone in the film aside, what is glaring all through the showtime of the film is the black-and-white cinematography. Viewers constantly speak about how surreal witnessing Lilis Soares’ statement-making cinematography is. Soares’s black-and-white camera work won the coveted Special Jury Award for Cinematography when the film premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance. The monochrome cinematography is Obasi’s steadfast commitment to the vision that birthed the film. Commitment to the vision aside, the decision to shoot in black and white is political: Obasi is interested in using the film as a corrective lens for Western viewers by emphasizing how beautiful the black body is. The casting of mostly dark skin cast, and the use of black-and-white patterned costumes and makeup which aligns with Soares’s cinematography, makes Mami Wata a worthwhile effort to lecture Western viewers about the beauty of black bodies. Additionally, the set design, well-framed shots, and makeup emphasize a sense of unity in the scenes. Each frame, most notably the closing shots, reiterates the beauty of being a Black person.
Those well-curated frames have, as much as the film, toured the world after its premiere at Sundance. The film keeps gaining the attention of film distributors around the world. Distribution deals aside, the Mami Wata keeps touring round continental and international festivals with positive reviews. This monumental achievement reiterates the continual interest of the world in African cinema. Mami Wata’s international acclaim recalls Djibril Diop Mambety’s statement about African cinema. The Senegalese filmmaker and one of the founding patriarchs of African cinema is credited with saying, ‘It’s good for the future of cinema that African cinema exists.’ Upon re-reading the interview where this quote is excerpted, a few questions have popped up in my thoughts in light of Obasi’s stellar achievement: Was Mambety being overtly patriotic when he uttered these words or was he being futuristic?
African filmmakers, Obasi inclusive, have constantly won awards during festival circuits. Away from festival circuit, streaming services—Netflix and Prime Video, keep investing more funds into the production of African stories. Perhaps, Mami Wata’s presence in foreign theaters, will curb the monolithic orientation of what Nigerian, and by extension, African cinema is. The uniqueness of the film is that it preaches how distinct African cinema is. And while I believe Mambety is patriotic, I believe Mambety is also prophetic. Mami Wata, amongst other African films, is a testament to this⎈
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