January 31, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi
West African Pidgin English with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional West African village of Iyi, the dramatic film “Mami Wata” features a nearly all-black cast of characters (with one white person) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A village that believes in the water goddess Mami Wata is disrupted by a stranger who doesn’t have the same beliefs.
Culture Audience: “Mami Wata” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in artistic-looking movies about African folklore and female empowerment.
Dream-like and gorgeously atmospheric, the dramatic film “Mami Wata” offers a fresh and fascinating new story about Mami Wata, the water goddess of African folkore. The movie has a “slow burn” storytelling that picks up more fiery energy as it goes along when conflicts among the characters start to increase. “Mami Wata” has a lot to say about respect—respect for nature, respect for spirituality and respect for female empowerment in a world where there are forces that want to disrespect or destroy all three. The movie’s deliberate pacing won’t be for everyone, but viewers with patience and open minds will be rewarded with an absorbing and thoroughly engaging story.
Written and directed by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, “Mami Wata” takes place in the fictional and remote West African village of Iyi, which is located near a beach. The name of the country is not named in the movie, but it’s implied to be Nigeria. There are several languages in Nigeria, but in Nigeria, “iyi” means laws, rules and regulations. And in Iyi, the village lives by spiritual rules where the water goddess Mami Wata is worshipped. The village doesn’t trust outsiders and modern conveniences, such as technology or advanced medical practices. Iyi does not have a school, hospital or army because the villagers believe that Mami Wata will take care of all of their needs.
“Mami Wata” was filmed entirely in black and white, which makes the imagery in the movie even more striking. “Mami Wata” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematography. “Mami Wata” cinematographer Lílis Soares makes the movie look both hypnotic and grounded in stark realism. It also looks “of the moment” yet timeless.
In the beginning of the movie, Iyi is under the leadership of Mama Eche (played by Rita Edochie), an intermediary who claims to have a direct spiritual line to Mami Wata. Mama Eche, who has a very stoic and solemn personality, is believed to have healing powers for physical and spiritual issues. But lately, some people in the village are starting to think that Mama Eche’s powers are slipping. And they are starting to question if Mami Wata even exists.
Mama Eche has a daughter named Zinwe (played by Uzoamaka Aniunoh), who is in her late teens or early 20s. Zinwe is expected to be Mama Eche’s successor as the village’s intermediary when Mama Eche dies or is ready to pass on those duties to Zinwe. However, Zinwe has a mind of her own and doesn’t really want to be the village’s next intermediary.
Zinwe is also upset with some of Mama Eche’s decisions. In one of the movie’s earliest scenes, a grieving mother has come to Mama Eche for spiritual guidance because the mother’s daughter has died. Mama Eche tells the woman, “Your child didn’t die. She went back to where she came from. You know how it is.”
Zinwe thinks Mama Eche has the power to bring this child back to life and should have done so to help the grieving mother. Zinwe tells Mama Eche, “Mama, if it was me, what woud you have done?” Mama Eche says nothing in response. Zinwe angrily says, “When I become the intermediary, I will abolish all this foolishness from Iyi. No mother will ever cry over the loss of her child to Mami Wata in Iyi again.”
Mama Eche has a protégée named Prisca (played by Evelyne Ily, also known as Evelyne Ily Juhen), who’s about 10 years older than Zinwe. Prisca was orphaned as a child and raised by Mama Eche, who knew Prisca’s parents. Therefore, Zinwe and Prisca were treated like sisters when they were growing up. Zinwe is impulsive and rebellious, while Prisca is methodical and obedient.
Zinwe and Prisca are also polar opposites when it comes to spiritual beliefs and the direction in which they think the village should go. Zinwe is very reluctant to become an intermediary and is growing disillusioned with the village putting all of its faith in the power of Mami Wata. Prisca believes wholeheartedly in the power of Mami Wata and has welcomed Mama Eche’s training as an intermediary.
The village’s faith in Mama Eche’s intermediary powers is tested when an ailing boy (who is about 7 or 8 years old) is brought to Mama Eche and dies while foaming at the mouth in front of her and other villagers. The boy’s father is infuriated that Mama Eche could not save his son’s life. One of the male villagers yells at Mama Eche that the child could have been saved if they had brough the child to a hospital.
Mama Eche’s only response is that modern medicine cannot be trusted, and this village must have a faith in what Mami Wata wants. However, the discontent spreads as certain people in the village start to talk about new leadership and being open to getting modern medical treatment. A young man named Jabi (played by Kelechi Udegbe) is leading the disgruntled talk about Mami Wata not existing and that Mama Eche should be replaced as the leader of Iyi.
A visiting doctor (played by “Mami Wata” director Obasi) and a nurse (played by Joyce Tobi Lileru) arrive in Iyi because they heard about children dying in the village and suspect that a virus is spreading. The doctor offers to administer free vaccines to the villagers, but Mama Ecehe refuses the offer and denies that there is a virus spreading in the village. With nothing more that they can do, the doctor and the nurse leave.
Another stranger arrives in the village, and he will have a huge impact on what happens for the rest of the movie. His name is Jasper (played by Emeka Amakeze), who was found washed up on the beach. Prisca gets to know Jasper, and they have a mutual attraction. Jasper eventually opens up to Prisca about his past and says that he was a rebel fighter in a civil war, but he quit the rebellion and deserted his army. Jasper is worried that some of his former comrades might find him and get revenge.
“Mami Wata” starts off looking like a simple story about a daughter who is resistant to becoming her mother’s successor, and it turns into a more complex story that makes astute observations about civil wars and the power dynamics between men and women. The movie offers different perspectives of how people are affected by the pros and cons of ancient traditions versus modern ways of life.
Viewers who are accustomed to watching fast-talking people in movies will have to get used to the measured pacing of the dialogue in “Mami Wata.” All of the cast members are competent, with Ily, Aniunoh and Amakeze standing out the most because their respective characters of Prisca, Zinwe and Jasper are the most fully developed. “Mami Wata’s” greatest strength is in its absorbing story and how it is told. It leads to a stunning ending that can leave viewers breathless and emotionally moved.
UPDATE: Dekanalog will release “Mami Wata” in select U.S. cinemas on September 29, 2023.