Nigerian writer-director C.J. Obasi has taken an old West African folktale about a water deity who looks out for her land-lubbing followers through a priestess and crafted an absorbing fantasy-thriller using themes of colonialism and the patriarchy. Set in a seaside village, Mama Efe has been healing the sick, interpreting signs from Mami Wata, and making a good living through donations from the villagers for a long time. But the world has moved forward and other villages have schools and hospitals, and the people are beginning to think that they need to move into the modern world, too. When Mama Efe fails to heal a young boy, the town begins to turn against her and her magic. And then a mysterious stranger washes ashore, shaking everything up!
Mama Efe lives with her daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), who will become the priestess when her time comes. Her sister Prisca (Evelyne Ily) is more worldly and less under Mama Efe’s thrall. But when the man washes up, she and Zinwe help bring him back to life. Unfortunately, he repays their kindness by becoming a warlord and taking over the village with a group of violent men. Zinwe and Prisca escape but plot their return — with the aid of Mami Wata.
It is a fascinating supernatural fable made even more interesting by the design choices made by the director. The film is shot in gorgeous black and white. And the costumes, makeup, and soundtrack add to an overall beautifully rendered production design. I haven’t seen much in the way of Nigerian film, so I’m not sure if this is any indication of its qualities, but I am putting a few new films in my Netflix queue just in case.
Mami Wata has been making the round of festivals and has played in bigger cities for Oscar consideration. It was selected as the Nigerian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards. So put it on your list to keep an eye out for when it comes to your favorite streaming services. It’s definitely unlike anything else you’ve seen.