C.J. Obasi on Merging West African Myths and Genre Twists in Sundance Drama ‘Mami Wata’

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Seven years before its Jan. 23 world premiere in Park City — the first-time that a homegrown Nigerian feature has scored a coveted slot in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance — C.J. Obasi’s “Mami Wata” began with a vision.

The director was sitting on a West African beach, in between projects and contemplating his next move. Suddenly, an apparition came to him: A mermaid standing on the ocean’s shore, beckoning to a mysterious young woman behind him.

“It was really vivid,” Obasi says. “It was in black and white. In the vision, the goddess’ eyes are red, but also very soft. There was a kindness to her eyes. When I came to, I said, OK, so my next movie is ‘Mami Wata.’”

What followed was a personal and professional journey to understand that moment on the beach, and to breathe life into a movie about the titular mermaid-deity of West African folklore. Written and directed by Obasi, with striking black-and-white cinematography by Brazilian DP Lílis Soares, “Mami Wata” is produced by Oge Obasi of Lagos-based Fiery Film Company and repped internationally by CAA Media Finance.

“Mami Wata” is set in the mythical West African village of Iyi, whose inhabitants pay tribute to and seek guidance from the healer and spiritual intermediary Mama Efe, played by veteran Nigerian screen star Rita Edochie. After a mysterious illness begins to claim the lives of Iyi’s young, a local man (Kelechi Udegbe) starts to sow doubts about the healer’s ability to protect them.

With the arrival of a rebel warlord (Emeka Amakeze) on the run from his violent past, and the death of Mama Efe, a new status quo emerges in the village. It falls to the healer’s daughter, Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), and protégé, Prisca (Evelyne Ily), to save the people of Iyi, setting up a conflict between the villagers’ traditional beliefs and a more modern, Western way of life.

Evelyne Ily in C.J. Obasi’s “Mami Wata,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The film is, among other things, a celebration of African womanhood — and sisterhood — a fact that owes in part to the director’s two late sisters, to whom “Mami Wata” is dedicated. “I was raised by my sisters as much as I was raised by my mom and my dad. They were my role models. They were like superwomen,” he says. “That, for me, was my experience of what an African woman is. It’s all I knew growing up. When I became more mature, I realized that I never saw that in film. Those characters, Prisca and Zinwe, had to be rooted in that.”

“Mami Wata” is an exploration and reimagination of West African mythology, something that has likewise been an outsized influence on Obasi throughout his career. “One way or another, I delve into the occult. But I don’t see the occult as anything evil,” he says. “It’s our culture. It’s our spirituality. It’s who we are.” He continues: “When I approach a story like ‘Mami Wata,’ it was very important for me not to care about those perceptions and look at it the way I think we should look at us” — that is, to celebrate African myths and storytelling by viewing them through an African lens, unencumbered by the Western gaze.

Obasi’s filmmaking has nevertheless attempted to bridge the divide, exploring mainstream genre conventions from an African perspective. The director’s first feature, the zero-budget zombie thriller “Ojuju,” was followed by a semi-autobiographical gangster tale, “O-Town,” and a short film, “Hello, Rain,” based on an Afrofuturist short story by Nnedi Okorafor. Last year, he co-directed the Locarno prize-winning anthology film “Juju Stories,” a triptych of tales rooted in Nigerian folklore and urban legend.

Obasi shared directing credits on the film with fellow Nigerian helmers Abba Makama (“The Lost Okoroshi”) and Michael Omonua (“The Man Who Cuts Tattoos”), who are the co-founders of the Surreal16 moviemaking collective. With a string of top-shelf festival premieres already under its belt, the group is pushing Nigerian cinema beyond the mainstream tropes familiar to followers of the country’s prolific Nollywood film industry.

Perhaps more importantly, Obasi and his colleagues are helping to redefine Nigerian — and African — cinema on the global stage. “When it comes to the discussion of world cinema, there’s only a certain understanding of what African cinema is. I’ve just not been fine with that,” he says. “We have way more to offer: stylistically, aesthetically, narratively. We can really do stuff that nobody sees coming. This is just the beginning.”

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