Mami Wata: Review

Mami Wata is a powerful water spirit of west and central African folklore, capable of causing natural disasters such as tidal waves and hurricanes if angered, but also can grant wishes to those who pay tribute to her.

The deity lends her name to the title of Nigerian writer/director C.J. “Firey” Obasi’s unmistakable feature, which walks the line between mystical and hard-hitting drama. A film like no other, Mami Wata is gorgeous to look at as well as a compelling real world story that is so direct and unflinching it might take a few goes to fully drink in. (Pun not intended)

The first thing to notice of Mami Wata is its striking visual style, a hyper-real monochrome where brighter shades look as if they almost shine among the much darker tones that surround them. Beneath the beautiful surface though is a multi-layered story that is not trying to win over mainstream audiences outside of Africa by watering down its mythos. (Again no pun intended)

Obasi creates a tone that feels both gritty and realistic but supernatural and unsettling, while always unquestionably a product of Nigeria, down to the characters mostly speaking West African Pigdin. The mythology is not over-simplified and the imagery is not compromised, it’s a film that forces you to engage with it on its own terms.

It starts off very Avatar: The Way of Water, set in the seaside village of Iyi, whose inhabitants worship Mami Wata under the guidance of matriarchal priestess Mama Efe (Rita Edochie). Her unwavering belief in what Mami Wata provides is reinforced by her daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh). Emerging from the waves as a baby, she was found and adopted by Mama Efe, who believed she was a gift from Mami Wata in return for her devotion to the aquatic deity.

Not everyone shares the elder’s viewpoint however, including her young protege Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen). When villagers become unwell she tries to have medicine brought to the village, only to be denied by Mama Efe, who instead says the stricken should stick to prayer instead, with no success.

The divison in Iyi runs even deeper however, with a band of rebels becoming restless after giving tribute to Mami Wata but received nothing back, while also noticing that neighbouring villages are far more modernized and prosperous. There is a plot to overthrow Mama Efe, accelerated by the arrival of an outsider, Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), who at first gets close with Prisca but then sees his chance at greater power and makes himself leader of the rebel insurgents.

Things start to take a predictable turn and it’s not long before the village sees an escalation in violence and subjection of its women. Jasper promises new things for Iyi – hospitals and schools among others – but soon his promises fall by the wayside.

Mama Efe then becomes a target of the rebels along with Zinwe, whom they want to make an example of, to prove whether or not she was gifted to the village from Mami Wata herself. Prisca is left torn by her desire to improve the situation in Iyi, but more wanting to protect her mentor and prevent violence and subjection of women by the rebels out to seize power.

The film builds to a tense finale, which works also as a metaphor for the subjection of women, who are treated poorly in Iyi but raises internal questions about how that is changing in the world right now. Obasi’s script encapsulates everything that rural women of Africa have had to live under for decades and decades, but the film is the farthest from preachy as it is possible to be.

Mami Wata works just as well as a story about this one village and exploring much bigger ideas at its core. It’s biggest message is one of peace and people living together despite their differences, everyone having the same access to medicine and education. Though it is a film about a small part of the world, it can speak to us all in different ways.

Jack first started reviewing films when he was four years old and went on to his mum about how the ending of Snow White was shit. He is now very pleased to be able to share his knowledge of film and culture here at BRWC.


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