Fantasia 2023: Mami Wata Is a Brilliant Folktale of Contrasting Balance

Image Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Mami Wata is probably unlike any other film in the Fantasia 2023 lineup. The black-and-white folkloric fable is set against the realistic insistence of tribal villages to join the rest of society in the “real world.” While that may not sound horroresque, for places such as these clinging to the fabric of their identities, it most certainly is. Director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s Mami Wata is a frightening portrait of political inaction, ideological clashing, and theological expression through an often muted and disregarded view of the world, tied into a dreamlike experience of vivid whites and deep black hues. 

The film grips you from its first frames with its camerawork and color scheme as the audience witnesses a crisis of faith in the daughter of a small village’s leader, Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), when death takes someone too soon. Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) has trouble believing the village’s deity, a water goddess named Mami Wata who grants blessings upon their crops, would allow the girl to die and, moreover, that her mother doesn’t even want to search for the missing girl. The elusive “it’s all part of God’s plan” Mama Efe attempts to instill in Zinwe propels her to the outskirts of the village, abandoning her faith and her people out of the considered hypocrisy that her mother wouldn’t have rested had she been the one who went missing.  

Obasi fumbles through the early parts of the film, which feels a lot more chaotic than my synopsis details. The amount of exposition he fires at the audience is a lot to take in all at once, and the black-and-white 4:3 adjustment can become sensory overload when mixed with the ASMR white noise of crashing waves and chirping crickets. When the story resets with Zinwe’s sister Prisca (Evelyne Ily), Obasi begins to pace himself much better, and Obasi’s story truly shines.  

Prisca faces a similar situation to Zinwe, with Mama Efe presiding over a ritual to detoxify a child of an illness that goes awry. Obasi contrasts the way each sibling deals with the losses. Prisca, having a propensity for modern sensibilities, is seen visiting a neighboring town for a night out dancing. After the child dies, she seeks the help of a doctor, bringing him to the village to inoculate her people against a potentially lethal virus. Mama Efe, the last word on these matters, dismisses the doctor (played by director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi), who insists Mami Wata will provide, which leaves the door open to doubt amongst her people. They begin to discredit Mama Efe and insist Mami Wata is fictitious. But it isn’t until a former rebel named Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) washes up half-dead on their shore that things take a turn for the worse in the once peaceful village.  

The poster for Mami Wata shows Prisca behind Zinwe

Consistent with most fables, the arrival of the outsider can go one of two ways: peace or war. The black-and-white allegory hints that this traveler isn’t interested in keeping the peace, and when his ideals align with the village separatists, a coup d’état against the women in power becomes imminent.  

Thematically speaking, Mami Wata is an eloquently written film with a lot to unpack. Obasi shows us another world and metaphorically folds the modern world into it, featuring men afraid of women possessing any modicum of power, money getting allocated to defense funding instead of the proposed education, hospitals, or electricity campaigns, and even an embedded construct of one culture’s God being superior over another’s. Obasi builds a powerhouse story with how these pieces of the film are portrayed and wants the audience to see the world in a new light by the time the movie is over. 

Mami Wata is an art lover’s movie experience. The first Nigerian film to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, Mami Wata was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic World Cinema category and won the Special Jury Award for Cinematography. Lílis Soares’ Cinematography is striking, captivating, and out of this world. What she has done in Mami Wata is unparalleled by anything I’ve seen, horror or otherwise, this year. She brings the look of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma to beach scenes and Kurosawa comparisons in her bold choices. The look is both ethereal and grounded, futuristic and stuck in the past. It offers a journey transcending reality through supernatural circumstances that psychologically plays with the brilliance of the balance between these things—an element that is well-connected to the movie’s central themes.  

The film is a profoundly rich and moving experience that argues we need the best of both worlds: science and magic. The film is an incredibly powerful reminder of what we don’t know and not to look down our noses at people who don’t believe the same things that we do. It also suggests that while faith can help an ailing soul, it can’t cure everything, and to be mindful of that as well. Mami Wata won’t be a filmgoing experience for the casual moviegoer, but if you love great folktales and arthouse indies, Mami Wata is stunningly impressive and will be right up your alley.  

Mami Wata had its Canadian premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on July 20. Tickets to the encore showing on July 21 are available now. The movie will release in cinemas in Nigeria on September 8 before appearing in select cinemas in the United States on September 29. 

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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