S16 Film Festival: How “Mami Wata” Sailed to Sundance

Sir Victor Uwaifo, the late great Nigerian musician, once confessed seeing Mami Wata as he sat strumming a guitar on a beach, in Lagos, in the 1960s. That incredulous encounter, the Highlife maestro claimed, inspired The Guitar Boy, his national hit which characterizes Mami Wata as a benign presence. A sea goddess, Mami Wata is venerated in several African regions, such as in some coastal regions in Nigeria, Ghana and the Republic of Benin, but also in the Caribbeans. C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, who wrote and directed the 2023 fantasy thriller Mami Wata, is fully aware of Uwaifo’s fantastical anecdote. Given some of the older man’s songs score Mami Wata, you can bet Obasi is winking knowingly at the audience. The songs impart a retro vibe to the black-and-white film, but they also allude to an autobiographical fact: like Uwaifo, Obasi also encountered Mami Wata.

His encounter, however, happened not on a literal beach but on an imagined one when he fell into a trance, in March 2016. Obasi revealed this, last Saturday, to a theater packed with cinephiles, at the Mike Adenuga Centre, in Lagos. This was at the third edition of the Surreal 16 Film Festival, during a panel session anchored by the filmmaker Abba T. Makama. Founded in 2021 by the S16 Collective—a trio of independent Nigerian filmmakers comprising Makama, Obasi, and Michael Omonua—the S16 Film Festival champions new forms of Nigerian cinema, the sorts that break away from the hegemony of clichéd Nollywood aesthetics. The collective has a forebear in Dogme 95, a dyad comprising the Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, founded in 1995, in reaction to the prevalent large-budget, Hollywood-style action films of the time.

Held on the third day of the four-day festival, the Makama-moderated panel sought to interrogate the long, bumpy but eventually triumphant trajectory of Mami Wata, how it surmounted the skepticism it faced in Nigeria and went on to become the first indigenously produced Nigerian film to premiere at Sundance, in the United States, one of the world’s most prestigious indie film festivals.

The panel session was preceded by a screening of Mami Wata, Obasi’s first with a Nigerian audience. Featuring Rita Edochie, Emeka Amakeze and the Ivorian Evelyne Ily Juhen, the film poses sobering questions about tradition and modernity, faith and atheism, and even, á la Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, the destructive potentialities of unchecked patriarchy. Inhabitants of Iyi, a fictional coastal West African village isolated from the world, have a long history of worshiping Mami Wata, but doubts about her powers begin to take hold when the deity’s medium repeatedly fails to work death-averting miracles. Should the village embrace modern science? Perhaps Mami Wata is about as real as the Loch Ness Monster is? An all-but-male band of dissidents certainly think so, their skepticism growing increasingly fearsome with each scene. The tension reaches a crucible when a strange man washes up on the village’s shores.

His trance, Obasi continued, yielded a vision of the film in “high definition.” He saw a black-and-white mental conceit of what would eventually become the film’s final scene: a cluster of enthralled villagers, alongside a young woman, standing on a beach, staring veneratively at the titular Mami Wata, a miracle of feminine grandeur. The trance bequeathed Obasi a new film, but also rescued him from world-weary malaise. The previous year, he had released his second feature, O-Town, a crime gangster film based on Owerri, a city in southeastern Nigeria where he was both born and raised. Enjoying a succès d’estime, the film received awards hither and yon but flopped commercially. All that critical acclaim couldn’t save Obasi from inertia. “It felt like I was not progressing, like I was stuck in one place,” said Obasi. Thus, conceiving Mami Wata helped him escape a career rut.

[C.J. Obasi giving the closing remarks on Sunday, the final day of the S16 Film Festival 2023 | Image credit: Dami Oshodi]

On experiencing the trance, he knew instinctively that the film would not necessarily be about the deity, but about the questions leading up to the scenario that he had visualized. Who is the young lady in the foreground? What’s the name of her village? Who is her mother? But before Obasi essayed to answer these questions, he jotted down a logline and sent it, for evaluation, to Oge Obasi, his wife and longtime collaborator and eventual producer of Mami Wata. “If Oge didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have made the film,” Obasi said, betraying a zealous faith in her discretion. Alongside the late Benjamin Stocton, an American screenwriter, the couple founded Fiery Film, a production company, in 2012, and, for Mami Wata, the company shares production credits with Guguru Studios, Palmwine Media, Swiss Fund Visions Sud Est, and Ifind Pictures of France. 

After working on a script for Mami Wata for two years, from 2016 to 2018, and writing “ten shitty drafts,” Obasi figured institutional intervention was due. People had praised the draft, but he felt he had written himself into a genre, that the story lacked an it-factor. “My genre instincts were getting in the way of finding something more. So that’s when I figured I needed help,” Obasi said. Help came in the form of film labs, where he workshopped and developed the story for a year, winning some awards along the way. In South Africa, at the Durban International Film Festival, in 2019, the project won the Durban FilmMart’s Sørfond-Norwegian South Fund Award. It was while at Durban that Obasi met a senior Sundance programmer, to whom he passionately pitched the film. “She said, look C.J., I cannot promise that we will pick the film, but if you make exactly the film that you have just pitched, then you stand a very good chance,” said Obasi.

[Image credit: Dami Oshodi]

Uwaifo may have had a flattering opinion about Mami Wata, as do participants of the Vodun festival that takes place annually in the Republic of Benin, where devotion is paid to the goddess. But adoration of the deity is hardly universal: she is bête noire in Nigerian pentecostalism, but has also been demonized as far back as the 1700s, when she was condemned as “devilish” and worship of her was outlawed in Dutch colonies. This is partly why Obasi struggled to procure funding from some Nigerians, the film’s empathetic portrayal of the deity grating against their religious persuasions. “One woman shouted ‘Holy Ghost fire!’ and sent us out of her office,” Obasi said, to which the theater, air-conditioned to boot, warmed with laughter. The other reason that Nigerian investors were loath to open their purses was due to their gloomy prognosis of the film’s financial prospects. Shot in black and white, with none of the strains typical of Nollywood blockbusters, the film did not seem destined to turn a profit. 

Obasi was not so much concerned about recasting the goddess for mainstream acceptance as he was about recasting black femininity. It just so happened that the one could not be done without the other. African cinema, according to Obasi, is stuffed with undignified portraits of African women, such that you do not reflexively associate them with “divinity” in the way that you do white women. Part of why he made this film was to change that perception, or as he put it:

“What do you see in African cinema? You see African women raped, tortured, beaten, always going through some suffering, but they are never seen as goddesses. But you can see a white woman as god; you can see her as the Virgin Mary; you see that in every Catholic church. You see a halo over her head. Which is why when we shot Prisca in the final scene, when she became the intermediary, there was a halo over her head.”

To depict black women, black bodies generally, with dignity, Obasi reasoned that only a female director of photography, a woman of color precisely, would do. The demographic’s small size made the search difficult, but he eventually found and settled for the Brazilian cinematographer Líly Soares—”because I was drawn to her works”—who helped to create the kind of super-stylized picture that had long drawn Obasi to such filmmakers as David Lynch and Akira Kurosawa. 

In several labs and workshops across Europe and America, Obasi received high praise for his story, but, to his dismay, it did not come with funding. He eventually returned to Nigeria to procure funds with which to begin principal photography. It paid off: he received funding, predominantly from Nigerian private investors but also from an Ifind Pictures of France associate. Starting in January 2021, shooting took place in Benin’s Mono Department, lasting four weeks. It would have been shot in Lagos, Obasi’s adopted home, but for his inability to “find Iyi” in the city: he couldn’t find a place perfectly balanced between rustic life and modernity. Ghana, Gambia and Senegal were equally considered, but Benin was deemed the best option: it was not as costly as shooting in Ghana would have been, not as distant as Gambia, and it did not come with the threat of appropriation that Senegal posed due to its well-developed film culture—Obasi did not fancy the risk of it becoming a Senegalese film. The choice of Benin, a country bordering Nigeria on the west, yielded some eerie coincidences: shooting began around the same time as the Vodun festival, and one of the sets was only a few feet away from an actual Mami Wata shrine.

[Image credit: Dami Oshodi]

“I always knew the film was made for Sundance,” Obasi said, adding, “I have had it on my dream board for a long time.” He saw his dream realized, when the film had its world premiere at the renowned festival this January, but the glorious moment could not have happened without some irrational faith and counterintuitive decision-making. Before Sundance agreed to screen the film, Locarno, Switzerland’s film festival, had accepted it, but Obasi, hellbent on his American dream, did not accept the offer, preferring instead to have no bird in hand. As he had established a personal relationship with a Sundance insider while at Durban, he could submit the film’s final cut as early as last February, whereas submissions usually opened to the general public in May. So he believed he would get a response before the official deadline. “It was a stupid thing to do, because no festival gives you an answer privately, but I thought there is one in a million chance that Sundance would, and that’s what happened,” Obasi said.

At Sundance, Mami Wata won the Best Cinematography award, but it has also picked up laurels elsewhere. This March, it won three awards at FESPACO, Africa’s foremost film festival; it participated in the Final Cut at the 78th Venice Film Festival, the first for a Nigerian film; and it has been acquired by Dekanalog for distribution in North America, but also by Cinemalovers for distribution in Germany and Austria. But perhaps the film’s most significant achievement is how it has come to define a period in Nigerian cinema, how it has shown that Nigerian films can be made outside of Nollywood’s established box office formulas and not only compete with films from the world over, but also find appreciation among a sizeable audience, if not in Nigeria, then at least on foreign soil. The film did not fare well when it premiered in Nigeria, through FilmOne, in September, but that was largely because of a less-than-stellar rollout strategy: it screened, for instance, at unfavorable hours.

Mami Wata may not have succeeded in Nigerian cinemas, but it has found favor among one of the country’s highest cinematic authorities. This October, the Nigerian Official Selection Committee announced it as the country’s entry to compete for the Best International Feature Film award at the 96th Academy Awards. No Nigerian film has ever won an Oscar, but, according to Makama, Mami Wata can make history yet again.

“Fingers crossed,” Obasi responded, stoically, as stoic, perhaps, as the Mami Wata medium in his film, with her gentle, patient, talcum-pocked face.

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