C. J. “Fiery” Obasi’s Mami Wata is a Beguiling Fable Told with a Monochromatic Eye

The tide ebbs and flows. There is a giving and taking across the horizon. The stark blackness of the night contrasts against the crashing waves that bask in white light. The water in the foreground lands violently and uncontrollably on the shore, but the steadfast sky in the background remains unwavering and stable. These juxtapositions form the opening shot of C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi’s arresting West African folktale, Mami Wata. Whether it be the call to the mystical, the fight for the sacred feminine, or the tug of war between the cultural and the colonial – it is a beguiling fable told with a monochromatic eye. 

Mami Wata, a water spirit revered in West, Central, and Southern Africa, as well as the Afro-American diaspora, is a figure shrouded in mystique. Primarily venerated as a matriarchal figure, she possesses a mermaid-like appearance (sometimes serpent) that can embody both male and female forms. Like the tides, she can represent a force of healing, fertility, and destructive power. Her recent appearances in Nikyatu Jusu’s 2022 psychological horror Nanny and other popular media have extended her allureThe film’s opening title card cryptically hints at the many assumptions about the deity over the centuries, but very few in the isolated village of “Lyi… until now.” The film is a captivating story where multi – and one-dimensional forces test faith, culture and tradition. 

A triptych of women, all with different value systems and views toward their ancient and sacred village form the focus. Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) is the village matriarch. She upholds custom and spiritual practice – an intermediary for the titular water deity. Mami Wata is known for holding a mirror during her worship – her followers can embody and reflect her powers. Mama Efe communes using an instrument made from seashells wrapped around her hands. She believes her totem of the sea allows the spirit to work through her – sure that she and all the intermediaries before her have channelled the divine power toward centuries of protection. Efe has two daughters, Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) and Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen), who have issues with, and scepticism towards, the practices surrounding them.

Zinwe is a divine child of the water. The implication is that Mami Wata’s influence cured Efe’s infertility. When we meet her, Zinwe is annoyed at her mother for not helping a woman who lost her child to the sea. Efe reinforces her reverence for the divine aquatic, believing the child has returned to where she came from. Zinwe quickly becomes disillusioned and steals her mother’s totem. Prisca, in contrast, is a less rebellious protege than Zinwe, shadowing her mother at every turn. She cares about the people of Lyi; she doesn’t know anything beyond them. Mother Efe took her in as her own. Her parents died at sea. All she knows is the island, the water, and her faith. 

Prisca becomes concerned when a child – who had the means to receive healing with modern medicine or vaccination, dies under Efe’s protection against a virus. Local villagers such as Jabi (Kelechi Udegbe) start to compare themselves to the pockets of civilisation in proximity, which are beginning to modernise, but Efe refuses to adjust her stance. Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), a deserter and rebel, also washes ashore. He begins to seduce Prisca; his outsider sentiments, love for a Christian god, and calls for modernisation spark a conflict that erupts in violent but not unexpected ways. Life and death all converge at one focal point: the ocean. 

The costume design, make-up, and hairstyling are extraordinary – dotted white face paint and seashell jewellery take up the frame with measured beauty and detail. Cinematographer Lílis Soares masterfully handles a delicate and intentional balance of monochromatic exposure levels. This creative decision accentuates the depth of the blacks and the intricacies of the embellishments in white. Since the visual composition primarily lacks colour, it inspires a striking and valued choice to give power and profundity to Black faces.

The sophistication of the cinematography is a testament to the film’s unique approach, inviting the audience to immerse themselves in its artistry. Even when some scenes feel too stunted or dreamlike, the imagery holds your gaze, drawing you further into the film’s visual narrative.

As the film progresses, it becomes clear Jasper’s patriarchal grip on the village of Lyi will reap catastrophic outcomes. Smoke covers his face, often revealing a man who is trying to obscure his true intentions. The camera lingers on the cross around his neck denoting the coloniser faith which has many African and Afro-Caribbean nations in its grip.

Jasper becomes a false messiah. Promising that adding lights, roads, schools, and hospitals into the village is plausible and a moral right. Doing this under a feminine deity is seen as unachievable, though – weaponry and violence becomes his currency. As the hegemony shifts, it is suggested to the community that Mama Efe is an exploiter of natural resources for her selfish gain – no longer the island’s saviour. Truth and land are ripe for the taking; this film highlights that technological progress is worthless when the people are secondary to the desire for advancement.

The narrative intelligently decides to remove any harmful conclusions about the nature of faith and culture. It neither condemns nor praises the adoration or existence of the deity herself; she is merely an arbiter of the sea. Lyi is far from uncultured – it is just different.

It is a film that thrives on the power of divine sisterhood. When Zinwe and Prisca are on screen together, they remind us that despite having different levels of belief surrounding Mami Wata, sisters of the sea are as unstoppable, unbreakable, and inexorable as the tide. 

Mami Wata is a unique and at times ineffable experience. When the mesmerising final moment lands, it solidifies itself as a work of art that transcendently flows into the watery ethereal. In Lyi, women channel their goddess nature – fighting against patriarchal and colonial control with a power that forever glistens on the tips of the horizon. 

Director: C. J. “Fiery” Obasi

Writer: C. J. “Fiery” Obasi 

Cast: Evelyne Ily Juhen, Uzoamaka Aniunoh, Kelechi Udegbe, Emeka Amakeze, Rita Edochie

Producer: Oge Obasi

Music: Tunde Jegede

Cinematography: Lílis Soares

Editing: Nathan Delannoy

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Kahn Duncan

Kahn is a passionate Melbourne based film lover who looks to film as a tool for both entertainment, education, but also feeling. Attempts to watch at least one feature film a day, but unfortunately life gets in the way sometimes. Prospective Graduate of Media Communications (Screen Studies) and Business (Marketing) at Monash University.

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