In C.J. Obasi’s latest film, the small, relatively isolated village of Iyi is overseen by Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), the group’s intermediary who lives in tune with the power of the titular African water spirit, Mami Wata. Problems come when Mama Efe’s power begins to be questioned after a young boy cannot be cured and dies, and as tales are told about the progress undertaken by other nearby villages, with schools, hospitals and medicine, and other markers of so-called modernity. The opportunity is ripe for someone to bring about a dramatic change.
The dichotomy between modernity and tradition is a very common theme in African cinema, though it tends to be generalized — as the scholar Jude Akudinobi wrote recently: “The tradition/modernity formulation glosses over the categories and terms on which the discourse of contemporary African politics hinges. Not only is it mechanistic, it is patently simplistic and expressly misleading.” At its best, Mami Wata deliberately confronts this tendency, largely through the character of Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen), Mama Efe’s protégé who nevertheless is initially convinced by an outsider’s plan to overtake the village and introduce modernity to it.
Still, as Akudinobi warns, recent African cinema runs the risk of overplaying their theological and philosophical hands, as they “manifest the struggle to find a language to articulate the ideological tension generated by casting African cultural heritage as a dark shadow on modernity.” Of course, the outsider turns out to represent the violence of White patriarchal capitalism, never delivering on his promises of so-called progress, and so Prisca finds herself the only hope for the village to regain its identity and peace. In some sense, this plot development feels too predictable, and the actions of the characters can seem frustrating in these moments, as though they, too, cannot see past these longstanding cinematic tropes.
This is clarified somewhat as the film progresses, revealing an intimate awareness of the simple fact that these phenomena coexist in modern Africa, and that its people are routinely forced into competing claims over what an “African identity” is or can be. Mami Wata, in its folkloric structure and attunement to convergent futures, wants to dramatize this negotiation, what Akudinobi calls a “complex identificatory milieu.” It is a negation of the dichotomous, even if it doesn’t always succeed in conveying the simultaneity of that sort of lived reality.
The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, combined with Juhen’s memorable performance as Prisca, work to underline the complexity of African representation today, so often, as here, tied to former colonial states and their funding agencies, and de facto treatises on African moral philosophy in the 21st century, whether or not by their choice. Prisca, then, capably shoulders the weight of this disjuncture, the core transitional nature of any society or people, embodied in a character pulled in more than only two directions, and instead toward endless paths of reconciling the individual and the collective. In other words, people are dynamic forces and change will come, and it will almost certainly be according to scripts as yet unwritten.
DIRECTOR: C.J. “Fiery” Obasi; CAST: Evelyne Ily, Kelechi Udegbe, Uzoamaka Aniunoh, Emeka Amakeze; DISTRIBUTOR: Dekanalog; IN THEATERS: September 29; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 47 min.
Originally published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 4.