AV Club: Exploring The Humane, Cinematic Excellence of CJ Obasi’s ‘Mami Wata’

The Sundance-winning film is a masterclass in evoking atmosphere, and in time, can become an influential moment for Nigerian filmmaking

As a child growing up in the small, vibrant town of Owerri, CJ Obasi watched a lot of films. These films were mostly black and white, and their gripping narratives etched into his memory. In 2016, when the filmmaker got the vision to create a movie inspired by the West African water spirit, he knew he wanted it to take that colour tone. Story-wise, its moving parts hadn’t come together, not yet. But Obasi had read Stephen King and his 2014-released debut film ‘Ojuju’ was a spiritualist fable with echoes of the horror master George Romero. Surely he had the background to chisel a transcendental narrative from the poignant stories of the seas, and in his latest movie ‘Mami Wata’, he presents the results of his seven year search for cinematic precision. 

‘Mami Wata’ went to local cinemas for the first time this September. Expectedly, it was a major moment for hipster viewers, the sort me and my two writer friends perhaps belonged to. We had sauntered into the cinema in Asaba with palpable anticipation, finally about to watch this movie which was rocking the global film industry. Its historic showing as the first Nigerian feature at the Sundance film festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Cinematography, along with the avowed praises of those who had seen the film, established a quite high bar. And for the most part ‘Mami Wata’ does reach those elevated metrics, making the strong argument that it belongs among the canon of modern Nigerian cinema. 


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The film follows the activities of a society led by the mami wata priestess, Mama Efe. Played by Rita Edochie, she must maintain the political and spiritual life of the Iyi community, whose lingual and anthropological make-up most closely resembles the Efik of southern Nigeria. She’s also the guardian of two of the film’s most impressive characters, the young women, Prisca and Zinwe, respectively played by Evelyne Ily Juhen and Uzoamaka Aniunoh. With the arrival of Emeka Amakaeze’s character of Jasper, ‘Mami Wata’ ultimately spirals into a political allegory with subtle touches of water spiritualism. 

When the praises of ‘Mami Wata’ are sung, the beauty of its picture often comes first. Lilis Soares, in her role as cinematographer, ensures every frame is purposefully curated. Because the colour white is utilised as an atmospheric counter to the more often-seen black, the coastal setting imbibes a feeling of coldness to the film. This choice enables a certain timelessness to the movie, as though it could have happened in any era. As such films demand, there’s a lot of responsibility placed on the body, which must become more than just a conduit of humanity and rather viewed through the prism of colour and comfortability. Obasi recognises this, especially with the cerebral choices he allows his co-creators to make. 

Reminding the viewer that artistry can be inherently political, the aesthetic refuses to succumb to simplicity. From the body art of the characters to their movement on-screen, especially as the tensions in thickens, the vision remains uncompromising. Light offers a poignant plot device, teasing emotions from the characters and seductively offering them to the viewer. Some scenes in the film directly references this feeling; the brief love arc between Prisca and Jasper, which peaks with a skimmed through but nevertheless heated sex scene. Even the costumes contribute to the movie’s breathtaking cinematography, with the grand outfits of Mama Efe particularly delightful. 


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In movies where setting acts as an important plot device, that vision should ideally align with other sensorial markers. That means sight, while being the highest in that hierarchy, has to be complemented by sound (there’s also touch, but taste and smell are senses which the limited form of cinema cannot evoke). ‘Mami Wata’ achieves the purpose of sound as a signifier of geographical nuances. Shot around the splendour of the villages and waters of Benin, the sound of crashing sea waves and the heavy tunes of the wind are recurrent devices, used to propel the abstract form of the movie’s messaging. 

The most understated contributor to the film’s sonic excellence comes from its language, however. Beyond the epic broodiness of the soundtrack, and the mystical allure of its water stirring, particular credit is owed to the dialogue and the metres of sound they’re delivered in. The former is unarguably owed to the mastery of the actors, their stepping up to the ingenuity of the script at hand. Per dialogue, Obasi’s script doesn’t allow for conversational fluff, even when taking the colourful dance of the Nigerian Pidgin. This is especially obvious in the early scenes, where the tension arises from the characters’ implicit desire not to express themselves to each other. In one scene, after Zinwe watches a youngster lose his life, she queries Mama Efe, whose unconvincing explanation becomes noted for its novelty; until then, nobody had offered the parameters for her powers. She was just another character moving to the film’s motivations. 

If the execution of ‘Mami Wata’ was assured, and its actors delectable in their performances, then why was I conflicted as we exited that Asaba cinema? My friends were convinced it was a masterpiece; Chimezie likened the camera to a character of its own, finding a parallel showcase in ‘City of God’. Chiedoziem thought it was an instant classic which would spur conversations many years after. Perhaps I was still tussling with the storyline, because I was uncharacteristically quiet, even though I had opinions of my own. It is a masterpiece, to be sure, but I can’t help but feel the writing could have benefited from more complications. Stories of this kind are inherently complex, in that the filmmaker has viewed sociopolitical concerns through a spiritual, and almost mystical, prism. It’s a presentation of opposing ideals and the resolution, therefore, should ideally tussle both ideals with equal intensity. 

Through a political lens, the script of ‘Mami Wata’ is almost flawless. The movie begins with the representation of the traditional belief system; the rituals, the offerings, the level of reverence that’s accorded to Mama Efe—these  are poignantly drawn into the movie, with an astute dedication that evokes the films of Tunde Kelani. Then comes the focal character of Jasper, whose quick ascendance into political power reveals the sly ways of contemporary lifestyle. Where there was faith in the unseen, now even the beholden doesn’t confer loyalty. The move to take power from Mama Efe reflects the friction between the old and new; from ‘Things Fall Apart’ to ‘Living in Bondage’, it’s a classic theme in Nigerian storytelling, but Obasi makes it poignant enough for modern filmmaking. The scene where Jasper acquires guns, and he and his cohorts shoot them into the air, is rendered just so the viewer knows the depth of disruption that has happened. 

When a confrontation occurs between both parties, Prisca makes sure to point out the undelivered promises of Jasper and his men. It’s a charged portrayal of one of the film’s most important messages; that politicians claim to have solutions for everything, but ultimately, they reveal themselves to be after their own interests. Closely related to that idea is that the modern idea of democracy might not always be the solution, especially in Africa where historic links of governance are interlinked with spiritual forces. Considering the poignance of its sociopolitical arc, I felt its reflection of spiritualism wasn’t done enough justice to. 


At the end of the movie, we do not know how influential the mami wata goddess has been, and there are few pointers. There’s that undoubtedly moving scene where a figure that seems to be the goddess appears on the water, casting an awesome light and smiling radiantly on those who behold her. At that point, there’s been a resolution to the conflict but its means aren’t clearly arrived at. The sighting of mami water thus suggests she’s played a role, and the actions of Prisca might suggest divine possession, but aside from these permutations the matter of faith isn’t given enough scenic detail to enable the viewer to solve its tensions within the context of the film. 

It was nine years ago when CJ Obasi said that he didn’t consider himself a Nollywood filmmaker. For him, the choice was more political than artistic; in the nineties a New Yorker journalist had ascribed the name to the Nigerian film industry, largely for its prolific nature, and it had stuck. A commercially-minded term which bolstered the scene’s economic prospects. His indie-centric work wasn’t nodding to those motivations and while it was a divisive choice, the richness in his creativity has earned his position in the scene. It’s one he shares with the directors Abba Makama and Michael Omonua, with whom he co-founded the Surreal16 collective, whose artistic vision is tied to the filmmakers’ love for the alternative genre and the mystical elements found across African cultural beliefs and practices. 

A believer in maintaining high standards, Obasi has always leaned into the artsy potential of filmmaking and through this has created a fine oeuvre for himself. His ‘Hello, Rain’ adaptation of the short story ‘Hello Moto’ by the acclaimed Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor put him on the stage of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in Germany. Movies like ‘O Town’ and his work on S16’s ‘Juju Stories’ also contributed to Obasi’s renown down the years, as one of Nigeria’s most dedicated filmmakers. 

‘Mami Wata’ takes Obasi from the circuit of alternative filmmakers to an established presence in Nigerian film. His next movie will definitely be attended by a lot more attention, and the current run of this feature is the kind that forever elevates one’s career. His greatest achievement remains the film’s forward-facing artistic vision however; while Old Nollywood films have had scenes which reflected the mami water terrain, they were mostly presented as an exotic choice, and had little depth going for them. ‘Mami Wata’ is the first we’ve seen the internal circuitry of its practitioners reflected. Shimmering with cinematic brilliance, evocative in its Africanness, it’s a film that carries the unarguable stamp of greatness.