At Afrika Eye Film Festival, C.J Obasi’s ‘Mami Wata’ Gathers More Acclaim

At Afrika Eye Film Festival, C.J Obasi’s ‘Mami Wata’ Gathers More Acclaim

Vanessa Obioha

Afrika Eye Film Festival returned recently for its 17th edition and had an array of films that dug deep into political issues and highlighted the creative spirit of the continent. From musical trilogies, and folklores to afrofuturism stories, the festival thrilled audiences in Bristol, U.K. for the eight days it held.

One of the films that captivated audiences and sparked vibrant conversations about African culture was ‘Mami Wata,’ the Sundance-winning film by Nigerian film director C.J. Obasi. The film which had its U.K. premiere at the festival, was praised for its cinematography and its riveting storyline.

A supernatural tale, ‘Mami Wata’ revolves around two sisters who must fight to save their people and restore the glory of a water goddess to the land.

Mermaids are prevalent in African culture and are both revered and detested. In Nigeria, the water deity is worshipped in some cultures and is sometimes known for bringing good tidings to the people such as wealth, children and what have you. However, the advent of Christianity led to the dismissal of such traditions as evil.
Obasi’s creative prowess in distilling primaeval and intricate themes fetched him positive reviews and international acclaim. During a panel session moderated by screenwriter and film scholar Dr. Samantha Iwowo of Bournemouth University after the screening, the film’s intervention in the history, contemporary, and imaginary facets of Nollywood took centre stage.

“The experimental nature of it as a third-space film,” Iwowo said. “By this I mean, drawing on Nollywood’s dialogue-driven storytelling style – a homage to its oral folklore roots, as well as the Japanese cinema style of Akira Kurosawa, to make its story accessible to audiences beyond Africa. Secondly, it raises questions of Africa’s complicity in the perpetuation of legacies of colonial misrule and thirdly, it appears to instruct a turning point in Nollywood – a film whose subject of mermaids in the African context is mobilisable to usefully challenge the argument, especially in the wake of the Hollywood film by Rob Marshall, ‘The Little Mermaid (2022),’ that some mermaids are not black.”

Buttressing her point further, Iwowo noted that Obasi’s portrayal of the mermaid as a black girl was a timely commentary, countering the anti-blackness backlash faced by Hollywood’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ in 2022.

“Some of the anti-blackness backlash to ‘The Little Mermaid’ include that Ariel was cast as a black girl Halle Bailey, rather than white. To this set of audiences, it was a contradiction to what they insisted is the authenticity of mermaids as being white in race. Obasi consciously or unconsciously punches a needed hole in this hasty conclusion by visually depicting the mami water worship systems in Nigeria either called onishei by the people of Delta Igbo Nigeria, Olokun by the Benin people, Oshun by the Yorubas – the list goes on.”

Joining the conversation was Telojo Emina who praised Obasi for “skillfully woven ‘Mami Wata’ through West African folklore, engaging in profound discussions on multifaceted subjects. The film intricately explores the theme of identity loss, probing the depths of what it means to grapple with one’s sense of self in the face of cultural shifts.”

‘Mami Wata’ has been submitted as Nigeria’s entry for the 2024 Oscars International Feature Film category, solidifying its impact on the global cinematic stage.

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