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Filmgoers outside Africa may never have heard of Mami Wata, the supernatural being who gives the Nigerian director C.J. Obasi’s film its title. She hasn’t attained the status of, say, Norse or Greek gods, whose pantheons have been propped up by Hollywood blockbusterdom, but Obasi, who also wrote the screenplay, has made sure that prior knowledge is not necessary to enjoy his film – Nigeria’s official entry for next year’s Academy Awards. Still, it is perhaps useful to understand the hold that Mami Wata has for people across West Africa – including Obasi, who has said that his film was inspired by a vision he had years ago.
It is not clear how much of that vision derives from childhood memories, but the director certainly knows things his generation of Nigerians learned from their elders: Mami Wata grants wishes, Mami Wata can make you rich, Mami Wata can be vengeful against people who break promises. Children learn that they should flee if they ever see her on the beach – though in a 1960s hit, ‘Guitar Boy’, the Nigerian musician Sir Victor Uwaifo (who features on this film’s soundtrack) gave a different instruction: “Never you run away.”
In Obasi’s telling – only loosely related to popular versions of Mami Wata’s activities in Nigeria – Mami Wata is de facto ruler of a fictional West African coastal village, Iyi. Her intermediary is Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), the village leader, whose primary duty is to relay the goddess’s will to the people. At first everything is fine. The people have no qualms about the leadership and the system of governance works well enough. But the death of a child upsets the balance. Mama Efe conveys Mami Wata’s wishes: the child will remain dead.
This highlights a weakness in Iyi’s political arrangement, and maybe even in Mami Wata’s vaunted powers. Within the top family’s household, Mama Efe’s headstrong daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) rebels and, despite the pleas of her adopted sibling Prisca (Evelyne Ily), expresses her anger openly. Outside the household, a cohort led by the noisy, reckless Jabi (the chameleonic Nollywood actor Kelechi Udegbe) is thinking the same thoughts as Zinwe – only violently.
There is no escaping the political implications of a story involving a man looking to upend a system headed by a woman and a female deity. But Mami Wata doesn’t spend too much time on the gender dynamics – Obasi has other fish to fry. For one thing, as his story develops to include a white man providing arms to a group intent on war, the parallels to Africa’s real political history are barefaced.
It’s easy to see that Jabi’s wish for progress has merit; but so does Mama Efe’s fealty to a deity who has given Iyi peace. Some viewers might see this as equivocation, but such ambiguity is an honest reflection of the politics of civil wars. Obasi evidently wants to put forward a particular interpretation of Africa’s blood-spattered history and, as is the case with the history of too many nation states in the continent, Iyi becomes the setting for protracted violence.
Unfortunately, while the strikingly beautiful black-and-white camerawork and Nathan Delannoy’s editing use the cover of night to their advantage, the fight scenes fail to match the film’s philosophical and aesthetic ambitions. But it is for its ambition and its visual choices that Mami Wata stands out. Cinematographer Lílis Soares deservedly received a Special Jury Award at Sundance earlier this year.
The markings on the bodies of the Iyi people – reminiscent of those on the bodies of the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti’s dancers – are dazzlingly luminescent. In one ravishing scene, drops of water fall like streaks of interlinked, elongated photons. Whatever the film’s flaws, Obasi’s film is a rich visual experience.
► Mami Wata is in UK cinemas 17 November.
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