THE STORY – In the oceanside village of Iyi, the revered Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) acts as an intermediary between the people and the all-powerful water deity Mami Wata. But, when a young boy is lost to a virus, Efe’s devoted daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) and skeptical protégé Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen) warn Efe about unrest among the villagers. With the sudden arrival of a mysterious rebel deserter named Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), a conflict erupts, leading to a violent clash of ideologies and a crisis of faith for the people of Iyi.
THE CAST – Evelyne Ily Juhen, Uzoamaka Aniunoh, Kelechi Udegbe, Emeka Amakeze, Rita Edochie & Tough Bone
THE TEAM – C.J. Obasi (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
“Mami Wata” is the kind of movie that holds an audience’s attention through — among other aspects — the innovation of its structure. Broken into distinct chapters, this story of faith and allegiance unfolds unexpectedly. It’s a captivating folk tale that offers as many surprises to those watching as it does to the characters.
The village of Iyi finds itself at a crossroads: half of its population believes in and prays to the water goddess Mami Wata, and the other half derides them for doing so. Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) acts as the intermediary between her people and the goddess, and it appears that her connection is weakening, which only lends more credence to the non-believers’ perspective. As tensions rise, Mama Efe and her daughters Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen) and Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) must try to preserve peace in the village, especially after the arrival of a mysterious stranger named Jasper (Emeka Amakeze).
The movie is notably filmed in very sharp black-and-white, with especially deep blacks. This has the haunting effect of accentuating shadows, which is especially striking in night scenes when it’s impossible to make anything out in the dark spaces behind and around the characters. They look as if they’re floating in a void, which reverberates thematically with how some of the villagers feel isolated and alone in their old-fashioned religious beliefs. In addition, there are some stunning shots that play with focus in order to add to the magical realism peppered throughout the film. At times, however, the film is shot so darkly that it can be difficult to make out details of what’s supposed to be visible on screen. Besides the occasional instances of indiscernible darkness, the cinematography is fantastic. There are also some creative choices made in the editing, working in tandem with the camerawork, which brings an air of mysticism to the film. Most notably, a scene of Prisca’s face in a moment of ecstasy is overlaid over footage of waves in a way that’s both metaphorically impactful and simply beautiful to observe. Also, the impressive makeup and hair designs add an additional level of grandness to the characters, especially those who are the most powerful in the village.
This is, above all else, a story about the bonds of family, and a trio of powerful performances helps sell the reality of these ties. Aniunoh is as spunky and headstrong as the young daughter Zinwe. As her mother, Mama Efe, Edochie is appropriately stoic and self-assured, even in her moments of personal doubt. She successfully conveys why a good portion of the villagers look to her for guidance and help. But, the film’s shining star is Juhen as Prisca, Mama Efe’s eldest daughter. She is tasked with portraying a wide range of devastating experiences, as the film doesn’t hold back from putting her through a relentless series of losses and betrayals. It’s an emotionally taxing role, and Juhen is the perfect captain to guide the audience over the rocky waters of her character’s story.
While the segment-based structure works effectively to tell this specific story, there’s one quick revelation regarding the antagonist towards the film’s conclusion that threatens to unmoor the previously tight narrative. It’s a brief moment, and the film hurries past it, but it’s so odd and unexplained that it’s undeniably distracting. Still, this doesn’t take away from the film’s overall impact, and “Mami Wata” remains a beautiful and unpredictable tale.