Nigerian modern fable ‘Mami Wata’ thrills at Sundance

Filmmaker C.J. Obasi's project has received rave reviews, earning the Special Jury Award for cinematography at the festival.

From thrilling documentaries to powerful dramas, the Sundance Film Festival‘s slate this year has consisted of projects set to delight, thrill, and entertain audiences all year long. One film, however, has made quite the splash at the festival: C.J. Obasi’s “Mami Wata.”

Evelyne Ily Juhen appears in a still from C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s film “Mami Wata,” an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

The film is rooted in West African folklore and is the first Nigerian film to grace the World Cinematic Dramatic competition at the festival. In black-and-white cinematography, “Mami Wata” is a transportive experience, taking audiences to the fictional oceanside village of Iyi. There, we meet the respected Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), an “intermediary” who can communicate with the people, as well as Mami Wata, an “all-powerful water deity.”

When an unthinkable tragedy strikes the village, however, public opinion on Efe begins to sway. Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), her daughter and her protégée Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen) warn her of unrest in the village just as Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) arrives, a rebel deserter. Described as a “modern fable,” the film examines a battle between, “opportunistic militants promising technological progress and a matriarchal spiritual order living in fragile harmony with the ocean.”

2023 Sundance Film Festival - "Mami Wata" Premiere
Cast and crew of “Mami Wata” attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Mami Wata” Premiere at Library Center Theatre on Jan. 23, 2023, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

Speaking to Variety, Obasi opened up about the film, which has received rave reviews since its festival debut. “I was raised by my sisters as much as I was raised by my mom and my dad,” Obasi told the outlet. “They were my role models. They were like superwomen. That, for me, was my experience of what an African woman is. It’s all I knew growing up. When I became more mature, I realized that I never saw that in film. Those characters, Prisca and Zinwe, had to be rooted in that.”

As previously mentioned, one of the film’s strengths is its visuals, completely engrossing its audience into the mythical village of Iyi. On Friday, “Mami Wata” received the Special Jury Award: Cinematography, with cinematographer Lílis Soares receiving the high honor.

Speaking to the importance of African cinema on the global stage, Obasi told Variety, “When it comes to the discussion of world cinema, there’s only a certain understanding of what African cinema is. I’ve just not been fine with that. We have way more to offer: stylistically, aesthetically, narratively. We can really do stuff that nobody sees coming. This is just the beginning.”

For more information on “Mami Wata” and Sundance, head to the official festival site here.

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