The story is remarkably simple. The peaceful tribe of Iyi is ruled by the much loved Mama Efe (Rita Edochie). She is an “intermediary”, ie a human being with supernatural powers and the ability to establish a communication between her people and their goddesses. Her daughter and heiress Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) and her adopted daughter Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen) are amongst her devoted subjects. Zinwe appears to have been fathered by the sea, suggesting that Mama Efe – much like the mother of Jesus – may be a virgin. They worship the sea, and they trust that they are under the production of an entity called Mami Wata (presumably “Mother Water” in Nigerian Pidgin). This water spirit has the power to decide who will live and who will die.
A man called Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) washes ashore, and Mama Efe is convinced that Mami Wata saved his life. But Jasper’s allegiance to Mama Efe and her followers isn’t steadfast. He soon sides with male invaders of various sorts: rebels, warring tribes and those wanting to “civilise” the closely-knit community by building hospitals and schools (a few white men make an occasional appearance). The formidable and resolute Mama Efe rejects such efforts, even denying a seemingly well-meaning doctor to vaccinate their children. The outsiders attempting to break in and corrupt their lifestyle are males, in what soon morphs into a literal battle of the sexes. Vigorous fighting and bloodshed follow as our brave women fight for their survival. The grand finale offers some sort of hope and redemption to our haggard heroines.
The cinematography is nothing short of spectacular and hypnotic. While the narrative per se is rather conventional and straightforward, the visuals lend an extra layer of complexity to the story,. keeping viewers hooked for the entire duration of 107 minutes. The black-and-white images are presented in very high contrast, with abundant medium shots and close-ups, in a technique closely resembling chiaroscuro. Think of Orson Welles’s unfinished It’s All True, infuse it with unabashed mysticism, and you are halfway there. The black skin is contrasted against white face paint and a background that alternates between sheer brightness and complete darkness. The distinction is such that sometimes the images look like film negatives. The stunning hairdos, headgear and costumes add an extra touch of otherworldliness to this magical story. Sometimes the images are so beautiful that you could almost pass out. This is the closest to Stendhal syndrome that I have experienced this year.
The chiseled bodies and the language also possess a robust and yet delicate beauty. A sequence in which Jasper showers, or bathes in the sea with Prisca, reveal a curvaceous, gleaming anatomy that must be celebrated. The Nigerian Pidgin language is soothing, like music to the ears, supported by a pervasive – however never invasive – music score consisting mostly of distant and faint African drummning. The outcome is a perfectly balanced, lucid and luminous film that deserves an attentive viewing, preferably at your local cinema.
Mami Wata is in Competition at REC Tarragona International Film Festival. In UK cinemas on Friday, November 17th