February 2, 2023

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CJ Obasi on African Myth, Genre Twist and Sundance Pick ‘Mami Wata’

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Seven years before its Jan. 23 world premiere in Park City — the first time a homegrown Nigerian feature earned a coveted slot in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance — CJ Obasi’s “Mami Wata” opened with a vision.

The director sat on a West African beach, between projects and contemplating his next move. Suddenly, an apparition came to him: a mermaid standing on the seashore, beckoning a mysterious young woman behind her.

“It was really lively,” Obasi said. “It was black and white. In Darshan, Devi’s eyes are red, but very soft. There was a pity in her eyes. When I came, I said, OK, so my next movie is ‘Mami Wata’.”

What followed was a personal and professional journey to understand that moment on the beach and breathe life into a film about the titular mermaid-goddess of West African folklore. Written and directed by Obasi with striking black-and-white cinematography by Brazilian DP Lillis. Soares, “Mami Wata” is produced by Lagos-based Fiery Film Company OJ Obasi and presented internationally by CAA Media Finance.

“Mami Wata” is set in the mythical West African village of Iyi, whose inhabitants pay homage to and seek guidance from the healer and spiritual mediator Mama Ife, played by veteran Nigerian screen star Rita Edochie. After a mysterious illness begins to claim the life of Aye’s youth, a local man (Kelechi Udegbe) begins to cast doubt on the healing power to save them.

A new status quo emerges in the village with the arrival of a rebel fighter (Emeka Ammaje) fleeing his violent past and the death of Mama Ife. It falls to the healer’s daughter, Jinwe (Uzomaka Anyunoh), and protégé, Prisca (Evelyn Ily), to save the people of Aye, setting up a conflict between the villagers’ traditional beliefs and a more modern, Western way of life.

Evelyn Ealy in CJ Obasi’s “Mami Wata,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy Sundance Film Festival

The film is, among other things, a celebration of African womanhood – and sisterhood – a fact owed to the director’s two late sisters, to whom “Mami Wata” is dedicated. “I was raised by my mother and my father as much as by my sisters. They were my idols. They were like super women,” he says. “This, for me, was my experience of what an African woman is. It was all I knew growing up. As I became more mature, I realized that I didn’t see it in the movies. Those characters, Prisca and Janeway, had to be at the core of it.”

“Mami Wata” is an exploration and re-imagining of West African mythology, something that has similarly greatly influenced Obasi throughout his career. “One way or another, I fell into witchcraft. But I don’t see witchcraft as something evil,” he says. “This is our culture. It is our spirituality. It’s who we are.” He continued: “When I approach a story like ‘Mami Wata’, it was very important for me to not care about those perceptions and look at it the way I think we should look at ourselves” – That is, celebrating African myths and telling stories by viewing them through an African lens, unencumbered by the Western gaze.

Obasi’s filmmaking nevertheless attempted to bridge the divide by exploring the conventions of the mainstream genre from an African perspective. The director’s first feature, the zero-budget zombie thriller “Ojuju,” was followed by a semi-autobiographical gangster story, “O-Town,” and a short film, “Hello, Rain,” based on an Afrofuturist short story by Nnedi. Okorafor. Last year, he co-directed the Locarno Prize-winning anthology film “Juju Stories,” a triptych of stories rooted in Nigerian folklore and urban legends.

Obasi shares directing credits for the film with Nigerian helmers Abba Makama (“The Lost Okoroshi”) and Michael Omonua (“The Man Who Cuts the Tattoo”), co-founders of the Surreal16 moviemaking collective. With a string of top-shelf festival premieres already under its belt, the group is taking Nigerian cinema outside the mainstream tropes familiar to followers of the country’s prolific Nollywood film industry.

Perhaps more importantly, Obasi and his colleagues are helping to redefine Nigerian — and African — cinema on the global stage. “When it comes to discussing world cinema, there is a certain understanding of what African cinema is. I just wasn’t good with that,” he said. “We have more to offer: stylistically, aesthetically, narratively. We can really do things that no one sees coming. It’s just the beginning.”

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