Sundance 2023 Review: MAMI WATA, West African Folktale Stuns, Mesmerizes

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2023 Review: MAMI WATA, West African Folktale Stuns, Mesmerizes

In West African folklore, Mami Wata (“Mother Water”) represents a water-based deity of relatively recent vintage to the continent. Traditionally a life-giver and life-bringer, Mami Wata isn’t without her ambiguities, however. 

She can take as well as give in equal measure, often balancing scales of life and death that — at least on the outside looking in — can appear cruel, if not outright arbitrary or capricious. She also represents a strong, nurturing matriarchal force in some West African cultures, opposing the masculine, patriarchal energy, often in tension, rarely in balance.

For the West African, seaside village at the center of Nigerian-born writer-director C.J. 'Fiery' Obasi’s (O-Town, Ojuju) third feature-length film, Mami Wata: A West African Folktale, the invisible title character dictates the rules, rhythms, and routines of everyday life. The village’s designated matriarch, Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), serves as a conduit or medium to Mami Wata, conveying Mami Wata’s desires in language and conduct the villagers can follow. Mama Efe also functions as a political leader, counselor, and healer, roles for which her calm, gentle, if firm, demeanor seems to suit her.

Long-term social stability, however, isn’t a given in the village. While one of Mama Efe’s daughters, Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), seems poised to lead the village once Mama Efe passes from this world onto the next, her second, adopted daughter, Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen), displays the skillset and talent to lead by merit, not birthright or heritage.

That potential conflict temporarily moves offscreen when Zinwe, bristling under her mother’s inflexible expectations and her natural desire to experience whatever the world beyond the village has to offer her, flees into the night, leaving Prisca the de facto heir to Mama Efe’s title.

Obasi’s opposes Prisca’s potential ascension to leadership over the village with the sudden arrival of a dreadlocked stranger, Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), who literally washes up on shore. Showing Jasper, a rebel soldier fleeing from an unnamed civil war unfolding somewhere beyond the village, hospitality initially proves to be not just the morally and ethically correct decision, but prudent too.

Before long, though, Jasper, bringing attitudes about war, violence, and patriarchy with him, moves to take control of the village with the help of village dissidents who chafed under Mama Efe’s — and by extension, Mami Wata’s — seemingly benevolent rule.

Obasi weaves naturalistic storytelling, surreal fantasy, and mythological symbolism into a singularly enthralling experience. With major assistance from award-winning cinematographer Lílis Soares (Um Dia Com Jerusa, Sessão de Terapia), Obasi and his team craft stunning, black-and-white tableaux from a collection of faces, patterned clothing, and simple background objects. The series and sequences of images in Mami Wata are so beautifully composed, framed, and lit that they could be printed and displayed in a museum or art gallery.

Those images aren’t simply art for art’s sake, though. They complement the multi-layered, allegorical story Obasi wants to tell, a story that, minus one or two missteps, including one related to the treatment of a character’s sexuality as the punchline to a joke, signals the arrival of a talented, skilled filmmaker, one whose next film should be high on the must-see list for film and fest goers alike.

Mami Wata premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Mami Wata

  • C.J. 'Fiery' Obasi
  • C.J. 'Fiery' Obasi
  • Evelyne Ily Juhen
  • Uzoamaka Aniunoh
  • Emeka Amakeze
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C.J. 'Fiery' ObasiEmeka AmakezeEvelyne Ily JuhenMami WataRita EdochieUzoamaka AniunohDramaFantasyThriller

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