September 25, 2023
‘Mami Wata’: Director CJ ‘Fiery’ Obasi is defying and redefining Nollywood

An onyx sea, white rippled by means of inky black, foams away within the moonlight. Greedy for sand it whispers and burbles, as if speaking to the shore.

On the seashore two girls stand, deep in dialogue concerning the unseen girl within the water. Her title is Mami Wata, a goddess with whom their group is falling out of religion. A boy has died and he or she didn’t intervene; fashionable drugs might need saved him. This disaster has penalties for everybody, particularly these two, the daughters of the village’s spiritual middleman. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. Ought to they consider? It’s each a non secular and pragmatic query. They argue; in the meantime the ocean and its solutions go unheard.

Final month, “Mami Wata,” the most recent film by writer-director CJ “Fiery” Obasi, turned the primary characteristic by a Nigeria-based filmmaker to premiere on the Sundance Movie Pageant. Within the mountains of Park Metropolis, Utah, it set about defying expectations surrounding Nigerian cinema to startling impact, in what might be the beginning of a protracted and important journey for the movie.
Although set within the current day, “Mami Wata” feels as timeless as its themes. Shot in vivid black and white, it is a parable about Iyi, a fictional village in West Africa, the place traditions have been maintained because the villages round it have moved on. Its arthouse sensibilities are a world away from the populist attraction of many Nollywood movies — movies which have dominated the home field workplace and change into the prevailing picture overseas of Nigeria’s cinema. Describing the preconceptions round Nigerian cinema as “dangerous,” Obasi mentioned he confronted rejection and prejudice from inside and outdoors of his nation, resorting to movie pageant labs to develop the challenge and scouring the globe for funding.

Filming lastly passed off within the neighboring nation of Benin in January 2021 with a global crew and a pan-African solid led by Ivorian Evelyn Ily Juhen. Their efforts seem to have paid off. At Sundance, Lílis Soares, “Mami Wata’s” Brazilian director of images, received the prize for greatest cinematography.

Subsequent cease: The Pan-African Movie & TV Pageant of Ouagadougou, generally generally known as FESPACO, Africa’s largest movie pageant held in Burkina Faso in February and March, the place the film will obtain its continental debut. A cinematic launch throughout Africa is deliberate, whereas the movie continues to be trying to safe distribution within the US.

Throughout Sundance, Obasi logged right into a video name to debate the making and that means of his stark and exquisite movie.

The next interview has been edited for size and readability.

Rita Edochie plays Mama Efe, the village's religious intermediary, in CJ "Fiery" Obasi's "Mami Wata."

Rita Edochie performs Mama Efe, the village’s spiritual middleman, in CJ “Fiery” Obasi’s “Mami Wata.” Credit score: Fiery Movie Firm

CNN: “Mami Wata” is the primary characteristic by a Nigeria-based filmmaker to premiere at Sundance. What does that imply to you?

Obasi: It means all the things. I’ve at all times preached that past Nollywood, we’ve the potential to create new types of cinematic expressions — past what is anticipated or past what’s established as ‘Nigerian movie tradition.’ With the choice at Sundance, it is a validation of all of that.

For individuals who might not be conscious of Mami Wata, are you able to clarify who she is and the function she performs in some individuals’s lives?

That is such a deep query to dive into. Mami Wata is the mermaid goddess of West Africa. She transcends West Africa — all throughout Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and so forth — however the specifics of the idea system round Mami Wata is rooted in West African tradition and spirituality. She may be very a lot part of the on a regular basis lifetime of traditions, non secular perception programs. With the appearance of Christianity and Islam, a whole lot of that cultural custom has been eroded. However there are nonetheless core followers that exist to this very day, and it’s as a lot a faith as every other type of faith that exists world wide.

How did you land on the movie’s aesthetic?

I at all times knew I needed to make a hyper-stylized movie. I’ve by no means been a believer within the terminology, ‘type over substance.’ I believe that type must be rooted in substance. All of my favourite filmmakers actually consider that, from Akira Kurosawa to David Lynch to Alejandro Jodorowsky to Martin Scorsese. All of those individuals have one factor in widespread: their movies are extremely stylized, but that does not in any method diminish the emotional energy of their cinema.

I additionally needed to make a narrative that was rooted in emotion and in a really earthy texture — though it’s a fantasy movie. However I did not need one thing that was so above the humane, that it felt so out of contact. Black and white was key to attaining that. You are particularly telling the viewers what you need them to key in on, even when it is on a unconscious degree.

Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), the daughter of Mama Efe, by the ocean in a nonetheless from “Mami Wata.” Credit score: Fiery Movie Firm

I believe many individuals have preconceptions about filmmaking in Nigeria, and concerning the movies that Nigeria produces. And I believe a few of it’s maybe limiting and unhelpful.


Are you dispelling a few of these preconceptions?

I hope so. I believe it has been dangerous general to the Nigerian narrative that as quickly as you hear the phrase ‘Nigeria,’ solely a particular form of filmmaking involves thoughts. I believe this has accomplished us extra hurt than good in the long term. Within the early levels of the event, we traveled to a number of international locations, by means of (movie pageant improvement) labs and workshops. Being launched as a Nigerian filmmaker, or somebody making a film known as ‘Mami Wata’ from Nigeria, one factor we might at all times face was individuals already having an thought of what they assume you are about to do with that. It was one thing we needed to battle consistently. It is actually unhappy if you consider it, as a result of different African international locations do not have that situation. If I have been from Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali … However Nigeria, (they’ve) a really particular thought of what it’s that we do. I’ve at all times wrestled towards that.

How do you anticipate the movie might be obtained in Nigeria?

I am attempting to handle my expectations. There’s perhaps extra curiosity than anticipation. As a result of our individuals, to place it properly, we’re very essential. The perspective could be, ‘let’s have a look at that Nigerian movie that made it to Sundance.’ I do not thoughts that. I believe so long as individuals come out and see it, maybe individuals might be impressed by it, maybe individuals will see themselves in it. I wish to take the nice with the unhealthy and I do consider that, in the end, this may assist the cinema.

Cinematographer Lílis Soares was on "a journey to try and figure out how to capture dark bodies -- African bodies -- in a way that elevated our narrative," said Obasi.

Cinematographer Lílis Soares was on “a journey to try to work out the way to seize darkish our bodies — African our bodies — in a method that elevated our narrative,” mentioned Obasi. Credit score: Fiery Movie Firm

The movie encourages a wholesome debate round gender politics and extra broadly, custom versus reform. It concludes that there could be progress by means of the reclamation of custom as nicely. Is that one thing you additionally really feel your self?

I’ve at all times been an advocate that custom should not be outlined as backwardness. Similar to modernity is not at all times constructive and would not essentially equal progress. These have been the 2 opposites which can be at battle in the complete movie. It has a conclusion that elevates the dialog about stability: How do we discover concord? And it tries to offer a solution, as a result of I do not actually consider in, ‘Go discover the reply your self.’ You may agree, you may not. I believe that dialog is wholesome. However as a filmmaker, I consider that I’ve a duty to try to provide some form of a solution.

We’re seeing extra African folklore in movies now (together with Philippe Laçote’s award-winning “Evening of the Kings” and final 12 months’s Sundance winner “Nanny” by Nikyatu Jusu) however within the grand scheme of issues there’s nonetheless a ton that have not made it to screens but. What’s the cinematic group lacking out on?

They’re lacking out on a lot. They’re lacking out on perspective. They’re lacking out on life — on the spice of life that that may actually imply one thing to humanity. All of the issues that we’re wrestling with right this moment, they’ve been addressed in our folktales for hundreds of years. And even simply by way of the cinematic dialog, the place is world cinema right this moment? What is the subsequent step? The place are we taking it? I believe African storytelling has the reply to that.