Clashes between modernity and established ways of life rarely end happily. While some will always push progress, others will find comfort in tradition. Most films that tackle this divide focus on the dangers of holding onto custom and a life beyond what was known. Yet Mami Wata, a stunning return for C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, proves that danger exists in the other direction as well.
Living in a small tribe, sisters Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) and Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen) have grown restless. Their mother – Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), runs the tribe and communicates with its deity for guidance. As a result, the small village has found peace. However, others besides Zinwe and Prisca have grown tired of their ways of life. These issues come to a head after a child dies without being taken to a hospital. When Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) finds himself drawn into the tribe’s leadership, these moments of unrest become far more dangerous.
Obasi delivers one of the undeniable visual spectacles of 2023. The visuals and cinematography will draw the most notice, with DP Lílis Soares raising the bar for the art form. The black and white photography, the world feels expressionistic and surrealist. Yet Soares uses the narrative’s relation to water to craft a world that feels fluid, as if it will slip through your fingers if you cannot capture these moments. The light simmering off the ocean adds unique textures to the world, but the closeups of the faces and makeup take Mami Wata to incredible heights. Few features deserve to be compared to the cinematography of Passing from 2021, but Mami Wata is one of them.
The makeup team (Campbell Precious Arebamen, Adefunke Olowuteams) and the costume (Bunmi Demiola Fashina) ensure the world feels tactile in these zooms. The way that light reflects off each item changes the composition of the film. Every moment feels timeless, yet when modern doctors enter the world, we’re confronted with a paradox.
Everything about the visual language of Mami Wata feels out of time, and Obasi makes this folktale take on special meaning in modern times. He does not say that we need to stop progress. Much of Mami Wata focuses on how natural progression and understanding can help create connection. Obasi’s tale is at once worried about the ways that colonialism can occur from within a culture.
The performances from Aniunoh, Juhen, and Edochie are among the best of the year. Each actress conveys genuine emotion, and they shine as a result. Edochie must handle the disrespect and anger from the world around her. Yet the moments we see her nearly break are those with her children. While only one of the girls is her biological child, the love for both is apparent in every scene. It’s a marvelous performance.
The actresses portraying sisters create beautiful moments that rely on their subtle performances. Each puts their heart on the line for their loved one, and when they speak to each other, you can feel the world fall away. It’s masterful work, with Aniunoh taking on the more immature role. However, Juhen displays plenty of frustration and nuance, causing her actions to feel even more devasting as time passes. Her willingness to believe others put her in mortal danger and she brings that innocence into the heartbreaking story around her character.
At times, Mami Wata struggles with some of its pacing, particularly in the first half of the narrative. However, the payoffs come again and again. Obasi proves more than capable of delivering a beautiful tale with visual flourishes and emotional nuance. It’s a huge step up for Obasi and should put him on the global stage as one of the most promising directors working out of Africa.