Mami Wata

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mami Wata
"Using very simple props, Obasi constructs a whole world in this small coastal location." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Growing up has always been a process of reconciling the drive for progress with the inscrutable value of things past. Most viewers outside the Fon coastal communities of southern Nigeria, where this film is set, will find themselves leaning strongly towards the perspective of its youngest protagonist, Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), at least to begin with, as she rails against her mother Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), the local priestess, for accepting the loss of children to the sea as a sacrifice, for prioritising her religious beliefs over comforting a grieving mother. There are things which Zinwe doesn’t understand, however, and she is about to get a brutal lesson in the ways of the world.

Shot in gorgeous black and white – it won the Jury Prize for cinematography at Sundance - CJ ‘Fiery’ Obasi’s poetically realised film explores the importance of faith irrespective of fact, and the need for an openness of the imagination to precede revelation. When Mama Efe is no longer around and Zinwe finds herself surrounded by foes, she must look to her mother’s teachings in order to resolve a seemingly impossible situation and protect herself and her people. This also necessitates uniting with her adoptive sister Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen), who has been seduced by a stranger, Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) who was washed up by the sea in the manner of old Mami Wata folk tales. Although they have sometimes seen each other as rivals, it is only together that the two young women can hope to prevail.

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Carefully constructed, the story treads that fine line between realism and the supernatural which keeps us guessing for most of the running time, with events left open to interpretation. What might seem like a simple consequence of human action sometimes becomes more obscure when one gives it a little thought. What is clear is that Prisca’s devotion to Mami Wata (a sea goddess or spirit whose history is more complex than a naïve reading of her name might suggest) is intrinsically connected with her moral courage and commitment to the people of her village, something which Zinwe will gradually come to understand, even as she finds herself steered in a different direction.

The bonds of sisterhood reflect the centrality of female power in a tale which sees it pitted against a form of masculinity which seeks domination for its own sake. The cinematography highlights the bright whites of body paint and shell jewellery, traditionally associated with femininity, purity and the sea. Using very simple props, Obasi constructs a whole world in this small coastal location. Some parts of the film feel stagey but the performances are big enough to keep it interesting, and the waves, carefully photographed to set the mood of different scenes, make the sea itself a character, restrained for the meantime and yet massively more powerful, observing all that we ourselves see. Is this Mami Wata? If so, her gift to her followers may take a bold and unexpected form, as she teaches them self-sufficiency.

Mami Wata screened as part of the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 21 Jul 2023
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When the harmony in a village is threatened by outside elements, two sisters must fight to save their people and restore the glory of a mermaid goddess to the land.
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Director: CJ "Fiery" Obasi

Starring: Evelyne Ily, Uzoamaka Aniunoh, Kelechi Udegbe, Emeka Amakeze, Rita Edochie, Tough Bone

Year: 2023

Country: Nigeria


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