With Mami Wata, C.J Obasi redefines Nigerian cinema on global stage
It is perhaps one of the most travelled homegrown Nigeria feature in recent history. C.J Obasi’s Mami Wata, about the titular West African mermaid deity has earned several coveted slots at prestigious festivals and movie meets around the world and still counting.
Written and directed by Chukwudi Joseph Obasi or C.J Obasi for short, with a pleasing black and white cinematography by Brazilian Director of Photography Lilis Soares, Mami Wata produced by Oge Obasi premiered at the World Cinema Dramatic competition section of the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, making it the first time that a homegrown film secured such a slot at the Sundance, reputed as one of the big five festivals in the world (others are Berlin, Venice, Cannes, Toronto).
From Sundance where the film deservedly earned a jury prize for cinematography, Mami Wata hugged the screens at the 2023 edition of the biennial Festival of Pan African Television and Cinema in Ouagadougou, otherwise called FESPACO. Not only was the film well received at FESPACO, a critic who is familiar with the mainstream tropes in Nollywood described it as “magical, phenomenal and extraordinary African cinematic fare.”
The film earned three awards from FESPACO—African Film Critic Award, Cinematography and for Production Design.
On Tuesday, the film had its New York premiere at the 2023 First Look Film Festival and it is moving on to Washington Dc and to other prestigious film festivals. Moviedom caught up with the Imo State born filmmaker previously best known for Ojuju and O-Town before his trip to the USA. Excerpts…
The Awards and still counting
I am happy about what we have been able to achieve with the film so far. Maybe not fulfilled, because there is still a long way to go. But definitely happy and grateful to be able to get here, and to do what I do.
Making Mami Wata
The vision for the film came to me in a highly contrasted black and white ‘vision’ sometime around March 2016. Everything else through the process of writing the film was built upon this, as well as in trying to catch the powerful, yet sublime magnificence of that experience, while staying true to my love for the culture, the spirituality, the folklore, and of course, cinema.
I didn’t go in planning for it to take seven years, but I think the life force of the film demanded those numbers of years in itself. Mami Wata is the most personal film I have made till date, so it needed to yield to time. It was also a rewarding experience for me to go through that process, which I believe has rebirthed me as a filmmaker.
The choice of black and white for the film isn’t merely an aesthetic choice to be cool or different (even though it is), but I think the black and white is necessary and organic to the story. The stylistic elements of the film and the political messaging of the dark skin, and elevating African bodies is a code embedded in the black and white. If you watch Mami Wata, the intention is that you would go, ‘I can’t see this film working in colour,’ which is something you can’t say for most black-and-white films, for the most part.
Audience Reception of The Film
I think we have an audience that’s open to innovative storytelling and new narrative vistas. The challenge for the audience has been the dearth of such stories, and the blame doesn’t fall on them. I’m excited to see how the film plays with the local audience, but I can guarantee that no Nigerian has seen a film like Mami Wata. It is a film that is intentionally crafted to be experienced in the theatre, which unfortunately, Nigerians have to turn to mainstream Hollywood films to experience.
Choice of Nollywood veteran Rita Edochie as leading actress
Well, I’ve always been a huge fan of Rita Edochie; I just think she’s magical in everything she appears in. But I always felt that she needed to be seen in something more cinematic, where her mighty gifts will truly shine on the big screen. And with Mami Wata, the opportunity presented itself. The same can certainly be said of Emeka Amakeze as well, who plays Jasper.
Pushing Nigerian Cinema beyond mainstream
Absolutely, part of the plan by Surreal 16 is to redefine Nigerian cinema. But what I want to say is that in addition to all of that, we are also redefining the idea of “mainstream” as far as the Nigerian cinematic space goes. It may sound like an arduous task – and it is. But I remember when we started, folks used to mock us for making films that went to festivals, calling us ‘festival filmmakers.’
Now, everyone is trying to make those festival films. The same will happen, and is happening with the Nigerian cinema space – as new and upcoming visionaries see what we do, and hopefully become emboldened by it.
Filming in Benin Republic and making Arthouse films
The film was shot in Benin Republic. Well, the obvious reasons – security being chief of them. But even more importantly, we were making a very culturally specific film, and there isn’t a place that can connect us to the spiritual core of the film the way Benin Republic did for us, and for the story.
As for whether I will be pressured into making non-arthouse films to make money, Nope. Money will never be a reason for me to make a film. Much respect to those who can do that, but I’m just not built that way. I can’t imagine creating work that I don’t like, just to eat.
Thankfully, I’ve been immensely privileged to be able to say that. And it is a privileged position to be in, a privilege I am super grateful for, and will never take for granted.
FESPACO and next stop for Mami Wata
Being accepted to FESPACO, and winning awards there was a dream come true. Nothing beats showing your African film to the largest core African festival audience on the continent. It is a different level of connection to the work that you just can’t get anywhere else.
As for next stop, we are in the USA presently. We have our European premiere and subsequent screenings lined up. The Asia, South America and Middle East premieres are also coming, and we are very excited for those. But I am more excited for the regional theatrical roll out of the film in the coming months.