by Hope Madden
Almost Shakespearean in its scope, with a bold visual style that stands on its own, C.J. Obasi’s Mami Wata delivers a spellbinding folktale of power, of matriarchy versus patriarchy.
In the mythical village of Iyi on the West African coast of a time period that could be today, or could be the recent past, Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) has lost patience with her mother, Mama Efe (Rita Edochie). Mama Efe is the village intermediary to Mami Wata, the sea goddess who protects and provides for them. Zinwe is eager to become intermediary.
Zinwe is not the only villager growing restless with Mama Efe. Wild, angry Jabi (Kelechi Udegbe) is calling for a revolution against the madness of the Mami Wata followers. But Prisca (Evelyn Ily Juhen) believes in her village and her people and hopes to resolve the conflict.
As is the case with most fairy tales, Mama Wati is symbolic, the story itself a simplified, magical version of life. In this case, a story of power and powerlessness is reminiscent of communities across West Africa over the decades. When Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) drifts ashore, with his outsider views and experience of war, a spark is ignited that Mama Efe will not be able to drown.
Obasi amplifies the tale’s cinematic quality with breathtaking visual instincts. The costuming and makeup – magnificently structured hairstyles, incandescent makeup and boldly patterned fabrics – give the story a hypnotic feel. Cinematographer Lílis Soares – whose work here earned her Sundance’s special jury prize – capitalizes on the film’s gorgeous production design as well as the expressionistic black and white to create a spellbinding vision suited to the tale.
Mami Wata is a spectacle of water and light. Raindrops on a forehead, seashells in a braid, sea spray as day turns to night – Obasi builds an otherworldly atmosphere from moments like these.
The action sequences feel a little out of place, and performances can sometimes come off as stilted. But the core themes take on heartbreaking relevance, and both Ily and Amakeze offer compelling turns. Plus, you will not see another film quite like Mami Wata.