As the ocean rises and falls, and the tide is the guarantor of its own return, so too does the astonishing black and white photography of Mami Wata step return a bygone style to modern folklore for a modern moment.
“Fewer assumptions exist in the isolated village of Iyli. Until now.”
Shot by Lilis Soares ( A Day With Jerusa, Nova Mundo) and directed by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi (Juju Stories, Ojuju), is a West African film about an isolated village that has yet to modernize, instead leaning on the protection of Mami Wata, aka Mother Water, for everything they need. Their leader is Mama Efe, the intermediary for their ocean god, played by Rita Edochie (The Python, Nwakanwa). She has two daughters, Zinwe, played by Uzoamaka Aniunoh (Ìfé, A Nauha Christmas), and Prisca, played by Evelyne Ily Juhen (Saloum, Desrances).
Mama Efe is a waning institution, her connection to Mami Wata seemingly gone, leaving her helpless to save the sick and dying, raging instead against the temptations of Western medicine like vaccines and hospitals, to understatedly poor results. The Western world and the white men it brings surround Iyli with tempting emissaries and modernized villages that its young men can envy, the true danger of it ignored.
Rooted in tradition, Mami Wata is a story that, like this year’s Barbie, is steeped in a surreal existence to Western audiences: matriarchy. The power in Iyli is held by the women of Iyli, and many of the men aren’t so happy about it. Where the village has modernized is in the outskirts, where a bar with a dance hall is a gathering place for seditious sentiment.
The village is a calm brush smoldering in the status quo until a Westernized man, Jasper, played by Emeka Amakae (Pretty Liars, Pretty Liars 2) washes ashore, and the winds of change that follow him fan the embers into a raging fire.
And oh, what a fire it is. Mami Wata is easily the best looking film of the year so far, challenged only by experimental visions like Across the Spider-Verse or Asteroid City. Lilis Soares and, later, the post-production team, use the latitude of digital photography to create an otherworldly vision of African blackness, using the Adrinka paint on actors’ faces to create entirely different silhouettes within silhouettes. Every image is a masterclass of contrast, truly frames painted with light. The majority of the film would be best replicated by hand and pen on black paper and white ink rather than the more traditional inverse. Unlike another recent achievement in black and white photography, Macbeth (2021), which leans into theatricality and artifice to achieve its towering pillars of white light on a black canvas, Mami Wata leans into the natural world. Shot on beaches, in dense jungles, and amidst scattered villages, the film turns these places natural into expressions of artifice and a surreal tale through its photography and its soundscape.
As striking as the visual dynamism is the sound. It’s quiet, too quiet, but not accidentally. The voices of Mami Wata are isolated in a quiet world without an electric hum or bustling street. Instead of replacing these with rustling trees or screeching creatures, the sounds of the natural world come and go with the story, sometimes ambient, sometimes silent, sometimes persistently knocking at the back door of your brain. More than anything, Mami Wata is a dream.
Gender, race, and history are at the heart of this West African folk tale. The one white man in the film is a tool of patriarchal, colonial oppression. Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) is its result, and Prisca and Zinwe are the cure. The film rests on Evelyne Ily Juhen’s performance as Prisca, who breathes life quickly into a character whose entrance into the narrative could have used a little more elbow grease. She is enthralling as a woman who chose her people and was chosen by them, an embracer of tradition who has also examined it from the outside and come to terms with its limits. In one stand-out scene, she dances with Tough Bone’s Ero at the bar, the stark lighting of the room joining with their on-screen chemistry to make you fall in love with them and their home as they do each other. The charisma she shows there makes the whole film work. Without it, it would buckle under its own artistic ambition. Instead, it kicks butt.
Heading to the U.S. for a theatrical run this fall, keep an eye out for Mami Wata.
Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.
In U.S. theaters beginning September 29th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Fantasia Mami Wata webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.