By Frank Falisi
Dir. C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, Nigeria, no distributor
Mami Wata was the Closing Night selection at Museum of the Moving Image’s 2023 First Look festival. [The following review contains plot spoilers.]
Does folklore come to us or react to what we give it? Mami Wata, C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s third feature and the first by a Nigerian filmmaker to premiere at Sundance, is principally concerned with the meaning and scope of the stories we pass to each other. Folklore’s magic springs from its denial of authorial authority. It exists as a fluid people’s tradition of inquiry and celebration, the call and the response. Obasi’s film moves in these familiar, tidal rhythms. There is a tangible magic in the narrative, one that must pass through the limiting and liberating factors of human morality and desire.
The film ends not with an intervening god-machine but a person-apparatus choosing to bear witness. It begins with a loss of magic. Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), the spirit intermediary of the village of Iyi, has lost the ability to communicate with Mami Wata, the water spirit that gives Iyi its health and prosperity. It is by Mama Efe’s authority that the village disregards a doctor’s offer of vaccines. When a boy dies of a virus, the village men blame Mama Efe and kill her. The intermediary’s daughters—the aloof Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), the solicitous but no less joy-seeking Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen)—are skeptical of this practical reliance on folklore. Zinwe flees the village and Prisca comes into focus as the film’s protagonist. Their relationship to skepticism and belief—of and in folklore’s magic as well as in the story they’re existing in—makes them catalysts instead of avatars. Their flight and dive mirrors the narrative’s motion. And then the wrinkle: like in any good folktale, a mysterious man appears. Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) washes ashore as if conjured by the narrative itself. He is charming and monstrous, a wolf. Iyi’s beliefs in metaphysical traditions (Mami Wata herself) and material ones (the tribute-based priesthood of Mama Efe, the capitalism Jasper brings with him from an unnamed war) are tested. Violence erupts from these tests, chiefly against the village’s women. Modernity appears not in the form of vaccines and hospitals and schools, as Prisca and the villagers hoped, but from a white man selling guns. There is a happy ending that restores both Iyi’s lost magic as well as the notion that telling stories like Mami Wata are the means by which that magic is kept alive.
When the villagers turn on Mama Efe and leave her for dead, Zinwe and Prisca memorialize their mother by running and returning, a circulation of current and past. ‘Mami Wata’ is both the water spirit that Iyi venerates as well as every water woman of Iyi. Mami Wata, then, is simultaneously the story of a deity and a critique of the belief that gives that deity its power. Prisca and Zinwe bear witness to the traditions their mother was attempting to conjure, learning how she excluded the people from her mythologizing despite her best intentions. The film’s crisis of belief stems from its characters abandoning each other as equal participants in authoring the story. Its resolution returns a West African folklore to itself and argues for film as a public-facing medium to witness this return.
The movie screen stays still to move us. Folklore moves too, sometimes like the ocean: the trailhead image of Obasi’s film is a medium shot of ocean waves crashing onto sand under a night sky. The sand—occupying the bottom of the frame—is brilliantly white, still only for the flitting of crabs and the foaming of white water above it. The night sky is void dark. The horizon that separates water from sky is indistinguishable in the high contrast black-and-white photography and discernible only because it exists in opposition to the vacuum above it. The water moves toward the viewer but is also always receding. The impression is one of still motion. It’s not unlike Vertigo’s in-camera reverse dolly zoom, with its seemingly contradictory expressionism.
Obasi explicitly deploys Lílis Soare’s (Sundance Special Jury Prize–winning) cinematography as a craft baseline for filming Black people, rather than merely a response to a Western cinematic status quo that privileges white skin. Obasi and Soares talk about intentionally working against prevailing photographic myths, the most egregious of which encourages filmmakers to not film Black people at night. Their careful work is emblematized by that pre-title sequence ocean shot (the lights change how everything looks, but we can change the lights), and the same care is evident throughout the film, in the way white paint and sweat dots a face and how eros emerges in syrup-tempo crossfades. The film’s triumphant ending is a gentle reminder that modernity—a word too often invoked when “Western” or “whiteness” is meant—should not be taken as inevitable. Through an act of editing, the magic of Mami Wata returns to Prisca: her attackers disappear in the space of a cut between shots. And when Prisca stands on the beach, Mami Wata manifests as her exact image. A way of seeing made possible only in cutaway; editing is a kind of magic too.
Mami Wata is a celebratory film, though not without its anxieties. Mama Efe’s extraction of Iyi’s resources in exchange for healing miracles complements but is not entirely different from Jasper’s violent takeover of Iyi and demands for food and tribute. Unlike under Mama Efe, Jasper’s rule is policed by threat of violence, sexual or otherwise. This charged atmosphere stands in contrast to the story’s earlier sense that genuine connection—indeed, the erotic—might emerge at any moment, as it does between Prisca and a motorbike-riding villager, as it does between Prisca and Jasper before the villain reveals himself.
The scenes of intimacy are reflections of Obasi and Soare’s treatment of the ocean, rhythmic, fluid, and culminating in crossfades that feel like catharsis. Under Jasper, intimacy is patrolled, taken by violent means, and punished. In one charged moment, a woman nearly walks in on Jasper while he’s changing. He rushes to cover himself, yells, strikes her. The camera cuts away before we can discern the reason for his panic—a mysterious man keeps secrets. In the film’s final confrontation between Jasper and Prisca, that moment receives its narrative follow-up when Prisca pulls down Jasper’s pants in front of the whole gathered village, in front of Jasper’s attendant followers. Again, the camera cuts before we can see. Their reaction says plenty, as both men and women erupt into laughter and the coarse subtitles reference “pussy.” Fully emasculated and exposed, Jasper wheels on his comrades, who unceremoniously shoot him dead.
These moments of potential reveal are punctuated by quick cutaways; we are forced to infer what ultimately inspires such anxiety in Jasper. Perhaps most likely, it comes down to an issue of size—the arrival of those cacophonic automatic weapons and the terrifying sequence of shouting men shooting them off into the night sky is Jasper offering a compensatory outlet for his own self-perceived slightness. A grimmer reading invites suturing the political implications of Jasper’s situation onto his body. He is a deserter from an undisclosed violent conflict, one that has left him connected to white munitions dealers. A cross dangles from his neck, shot without visual fanfare but also intentionally, specifically. The world he emerges from then—unlike that of the folkloric Mama Efe and the film’s pervasive water spirit—is the colonized one, his crisis of masculinity descendent from traditions of Victorian patriarchy and Christian missionaries. British imperialism has given plenty of precedent to read literal castration on this figurative loss of “manhood.”
The swiftness of these moments is jarring, as is the film’s brusque elimination of Jasper after imbuing him with such knotty gender anxieties. The climactic implication—that masculinity can be so gnarled by settler Christianity and interventionist capitalism as to be murderous, that there is an inherent goodness in feminine power—is righteous. It also risks a kind of reduction, opting for a fairy tale’s happy ending instead of the darker, more opaque resolution offered by many folklores. In light of the world Jasper emerges from and very nearly replicates in Iyi, the film’s insistence on joyful coronation rather than anxious extrapolation is perhaps not only understandable but vital to its thesis. Its crowning moments pass through Soare’s cinematography too, imbuing its women with a kind of potent divinity: when Mami Wata manifests, she appears not only as a larger-than-life Prisca but with new colors in her eyes, greens and yellows that emanate through the black-and-white. Mami Wata ends with new eyes beholding old traditions, a genuine attempt at letting goddesses walk on Earth and a folklore for and by the people as well as a reflection of the world into which it enters.