• Saturday, February 24, 2024
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Mami Wata: A coming of age in African storytelling

Mami wata

The swishing sound of leaves on coconut trees, the crashing waves of the distant ocean, the tangled hairs strewn with cowries, the near-perfect use of silence to communicate emotions by the actors and the splash of darkness, make Mami Wata worth every minute of the total 1 hour 47 minutes it takes to watch it.

Mami Wata has been praised repeatedly for being one of the very few feature films from Africa made in black and white. But the brilliance of the movie, directed by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, is turning folklore into a story that speaks directly to the audience. It is bold in its approach to storytelling.

“I wish more stories were told using this approach. Mama Wata,” said a gushing fan who attended the special presentation of the movie at the Alliance Française de Lagos / Mike Adenuga Centre, on Saturday.

There are many reasons Mami Wata was selected in October as the Nigerian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards by the Nigerian Official Selection Committee (NOSC). The film was also nominated in the category of Best International Film for the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Read also: From Sundance to Oscars: The journey of ‘Mami Wata’

Outside the screen, the Mami Wata folklore is often portrayed as a mermaid, a snake charmer, or a combination of both. She is widely believed to bring good fortune in the form of money. As a “capitalist” deity par excellence, her persona developed between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, the era of growing trade between Africa and the great of the world. Her very name, which may be translated as “Mother Water”, is pidgin English, a language developed to facilitate trade.

Mami Wata the movie is told in pidgin and in a language that is not easily decipherable. But the language rolls off the tongues of the actors; it feels like second nature. There are new words like “Ndenk” which means (Thank you) and “Kakara” which means (foolishness).

Read also: Nigeria submits ‘Mami Wata’ for 2024 OSCARS

C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi says the idea of the film came to him like a vision. His chief collaborator is Oge Obasi, his wife and long-time producer of his films.

“I think I fell into a trance-like thing. This happened after ‘O Town’,” he said during a chat. O Town was released in 2016 and is the story of a small town as told from a mysterious filmmaker’s point of view.

O Town is vintage Obasi and his imaginative approach to storytelling. On Saturday he described the film that was ahead of its time. While O Town won a few awards, the reception was not so great. Hence, a few months after the buzz of its release died down, Obasi found himself with the question “what next?

“It was at the moment I found myself at the beach and I saw the person whom I believe to be Mami Wata and I saw the same figure I used in the movie. The next thing was to start working on the movie. I started writing the movie in 2016 and I built 9-10 drafts,” Obasi said.

Obasi’s imagination is vividly captured in the opening and the ending of the movie. Mami Wata begins with Zinwe sitting on the beach and ends with her walking into the ocean as her step sister Prisca who becomes the “Asai” the intermediary, and the mesmerized Iyi villagers watched.

The characters in Mami Wata are developed in such a way that there is ample opportunity to have expression. Mama Efe’s struggles to prove her relevance in the lives of the villagers as a powerful intermediary to the spirit Mami Wata is brought to life by Rita Edochie.

Emeka Amakeze plays Jasper, the character who is washed off the shores of Iyi almost dead, nurtured back to life by Mama Efe, and who will bring death to her door step. Evelyn Ily Juhen takes the role of Prisca, the stepdaughter of Mama Efe, who will help the healing process of Jasper, sleeps with him, and would later lead the villagers to confront him and his murderous gang.

Read also: CJ Obasi’s ‘MAMI WATA’ rakes 12 nominations at AMAA 2023

Uzoamaka Aniunoh plays the character Zinwe, the daughter given to the barren Mama Efe by the spirit. She is torn between helping her people as the next Asai and watching her mother’s diminishing powers. She knows her fate is to return to the spirit mother but would wish it wasn’t so.

Mami Wata succeeds because it stays on course. It doesn’t deviate from the storyline and introduces random characters with different stories. It doesn’t leave you with scenes that leave you wondering what just happened. Every character in the film was entrusted with the singular goal of delivering a spectacular end for the story.

While there were many cuts that may look like the scenes were hurried along, the story was delivered. The suspense is a bit belaboured that you end up guessing correctly what’s about to happen. But it is a movie you want to see to the end and probably watch again, because it is a piece of art.