Mami Wata, from Nigerian writer/director C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi (Juju Stories, 2021), opens on a beach. Even the brief textual introduction explaining who Mami Wata is – a water goddess worshipped “across West, Central and Southern Africa, and among the Afrikan diasporas of the Americas” – is superimposed over a vista of bubbling, glistening surf at night, which young Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) watches from the sand, even as she hears a female voice faintly whisper her name from the waters. Zinwe, supposedly gifted as a daughter to the goddess’ infertile Intermediary Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), has been raised in the expectation that one day she will take over her mother’s divine powers, at least if she is not first reclaimed by the waters from which she is said to have been born.
Mama Efe is high priestess in the remote community of Iyi, somewhere on the coast of West Africa (Benin provides the locations). It is a place without schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, plumbing, police or military, but the faith of the locals has enabled it to flourish for generations, perhaps forever, as a matriarchy under the enigmatic, increasingly aloof aegis of the goddess. Yet as Mama Efe’s powers start to dwindle, and as some of the people of Iyi, including Efe’s other adopted daughter Prisca (Evelyne Ily), begin to doubt the very existence of Mami Wata, the stranger Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) will wash ashore, and with him will come corrupting change in the form of a violent power grab by the neighbouring men – led by Jabi (Kelechi Udegbe) – whose promises of progress are a self-serving deceit.
That beach, where different characters at different times look out to sea in the hope of a sign from Mami Wata, is a liminal, literally littoral space, where not only does the water eternally wash up against the land, but where female clashes with male, where the mythic is in conflict with modernity, and where ancient Black traditions collide with more recent white influence. Even the Pidgin that forms the film’s dialogue (and indeed its title) encodes a merger of languages local and foreign. So this coastal stretch is a stage for folklore, fable and allegory, as crisply monochrome hyperreal photography marks Mami Wata as both absence and shimmering presence, culminating in a numinous, luminous epiphany that miraculously breaks through the film’s otherwise strictly colour-free presentation.
“Our village”, Efe will tell a doctor who has arrived at Prisca’s invitation to vaccinate the local children, “is well protected.” Iyi may be a utopia, existing outside, or at least on the edge of, a contemporary world of medicine and guns and misogyny and war, but the greatest threat to it is the encroachment of these signifiers of ‘progress’ across its invisible borders – and so Obasi’s exquisitely stylised Mami Wata is a parable of continuities and shifts in African identity as it becomes exposed to elements from beyond its shores. No matter what cultural and technological changes may come, Obasi suggests that there will always remain a reserve of primordial divinity, working as a counterforce in its own mysterious ways – and waves.
strap: In C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi’s West African parable, myth and modernity wash violently against each other in a fragile coastal utopia
© Anton Bitel