⭐ Critic's pick
C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi’s Mami Wata is a visually striking film. It deploys chiaroscuro with incredible balance. With each scene, the film challenges itself on how far it can push its monochromatic boundaries. It is a worthy vehicle for its story about a secluded community’s dilemma of abandoning their ancient goddess and accepting modernity or holding on to their faith in her. Complicating this conundrum are the personal conflicts ravaging the small family of the priestess, Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), and her two daughters, Zinwe (Uzuoamaka Aniuonoh) and Prisca (Evelyn Ily). With Mami Wata, Obasi presents a new story channelling an old theme: what happens when the unknown confronts existing customs? While we must laud the folktale’s award-winning cinematography, something about the story finds Mami Wata wanting.
In Iyi, a small community somewhere in West Africa, the goddess, Mami Wata, reigns through her intermediary, Mama Efe. Times are hard for the community. A viral disease ravages the village, and the goddess seems powerless against it. Faith in her authority wavers, and Mama Efe’s daughters have new ideas about progressing the community without Mami Wata. Zinwe is vocal and fiery, but Prisca is diplomatic about her views.
Prominent members of the community, led by Jabi (Kelechi Udegbe), violently oppose the goddess. They cite neighbouring communities that have advanced with the arrival of roads, schools, and hospitals. To them, Mami Wata is a relic goddess holding them back, and her priestess cheats the people in the goddess’ name. The arrival of Jaspar (Emeka Amakeze), a beached rebel from a warring community, further complicates the plot. He leads the rebels against the priestess and wrests authority from her. He convinces the people that the goddess does not exist. The differing daughters must work together to free the people from his violent clutch and restore their faith in the goddess.
The new-against-the-old theme Mami Wata espouses is a simple theme. The story becomes clear from the moment Jabi confronts Mama Efe. Jabi and his cohorts represent the new, while Mama Efe and her family are the old. It is the same theme great works like Wole Soyinka’s 1975 play, “Death and the King’s Horseman” (not the Netflix adaptation), employ. To resolve this theme, the story usually insists that there is a mystical value to the old that the new cannot comprehend. In the end, the old always triumphs by absorbing aspects of the new. And that is why Mami Wata’s plot became obvious from the confrontation scene. When a film’s plot is as lean and evident as this, it forces the viewer to look elsewhere for surprises. Mami Wata delivers on that front.
Lilis Soares’ work in the film is outstanding. The compositions are immaculate, and the penchant for profile and close-up shots affords an intimacy that the stoic acting and delivery precludes. The scene of Mama Efe’s death is a struggle between light and dark, literally and metaphorically. The compositions, lighting, and camera angles draw the viewer into a surreal, ethereal feeling. The constancy of water keeping land at bay and the claustrophobic compositions, as if the camera is hiding secrets from us, lend to that secluded feeling in the Iyi community. Mami Wata’s cinematography is a visual triumph. Alongside costume designer Bunmi Demiola Fashina, makeup artist Campbell Precious Arebamen, and hair stylist Adefunke Olowu, Lili Soares and C.J ‘Fiery’ Obasi achieve a unique look for Mami Wata.
But the film’s outstanding brilliance ends here. The story is wanting. There is some telling that should have been shown—a bridge on the horizon and an aeroplane flying overhead would have cancelled several dialogues about unreachable modernity. The pacing lags and speeds up inordinately. Also, one feels that Prisca’s two love interests should have been one character molded into Jasper, thereby intensifying their final confrontation. And Jabi, despite his vociferousness, is a predictable, two-dimensional character.
Yet, Mami Wata is a good story working within an established theme. As we have mentioned, the old triumphs by absorbing the new. In Wole Soyinka’s play, the horseman’s educated son returns to challenge the colonial disdain of his people’s practices. In Mami Wata, Zinwe and Prisca wield guns to battle the new oppressors. Those who mock the gods must be careful because they know not the powers they challenge. The gods work in mysterious ways. This is a prevailing ethos in both “Death and the King’s Horseman” and Mami Wata. As Olunde mysteriously returns to take his father’s place, so does the goddess compel Prisca to save her sister, thus proving Jasper wrong about her existence. To battle the bullish self-assurance of the new, something of the old must die—which Mama Efe’s death justifies. Beyond asserting the importance of the old, stories like this show that neither the new nor the old are perfect, and to attain anything close to a utopia, there must be a generous blend of both. Mami Wata and Mama Efe both know this. The goddess’ final choice of her new priestess testifies to this.
In this film, we have a serenity heralded by the constancy of water, the quiet wisdom in its ebb that holds violence, that shows its true, powerful nature only to the worthy and believing. We have a goddess towering over her people, accepting the old and new with love. Mami Wata, the film, is like that goddess. Nothing in the industry touches it this year.
⭐ Critic's pick
Mami Wata premiered in Nigerian cinemas on September 8.
Switzerland theatrical premiere: September 21.
North America theatrical premiere: September 29.
UK theatrical premiere: November 17.
Germany and Austria theatrical premiere: January 11.
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- The pidgin sounds odd, but this is a highly stylised film, and it is difficult to comment on some creative choices. Does it work? I don’t know that it does, but it is efficient.
- I liked Evelyn Ily’s gritty performance—the star of the show.
- Finding one of the industry’s veterans, Rita Edochie, who doesn’t shout her lines, is a relief.
- It is a quiet film punctuated by an ominous tune that is a harbinger of doom. It rang a lot from the climax down to the resolution.
- Mami Wata’s appearance is a proper “ooohhh” moment.
- This film is important because it shows a divergent success in the industry that’s Independent, minimal resources, and from a director that’s been suffering for the craft for sometime now.