Nigerian director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi‘s Mami Wata is a festival first for Sundance. The exquisitely shot film, cast in black and white, is the first Nigerian film to debut at the festival. At the center of the film stands Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), a powerful priestess in the village of Iyi who acts as a medium to the water goddess, Mami Wata. 

Across the African diaspora, Mami Wata is known to be a patron of water, money, and beauty. However, in a society where matriarchs have ruled for centuries, Mama Efe no longer has the hold over the villagers she once did. It doesn’t help that her protegees, her daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), and her second-in-command, Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen), are also having their doubts about Mama Efe’s waning power. Moreover, despite Mama Efe’s interventions, children are dying in the village. However, Efe continues to stall against modern staples like electricity and hospitals, causing the villagers to become increasingly frustrated. 

Much more than a film that centers a West Afrikan folklore, Mami Wata is a film about matriarchal traditions under siege by the patriarchy and modernity. Just as the people of Iye are contending with Mama Efe’s reluctance to step into the present, Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), a deserter from a rebel army, washes ashore. He is traumatized by his past and eager to take control of Iyi, seizing power for himself through violence and misogyny. 

So much of Mami Wata works well. Aside from the breathtaking cinematography that casts Iyi and its people in almost a dream-like state, the costuming, hairstyling, and makeup are unlike anything seen in cinema recently. (These are the elements from which Ruth Carter’s Black Panther costuming is pulled.) Moreover, Juhen’s performance is a standout. She is both commanding and sensual as Prisca grapples with her imminent destiny. 

Yet Mami Wata isn’t perfect. Just as the audience is settling into the story and moving toward the film’s end, a horrifyingly violent scene that feels wholly unnecessary and goes well past the themes of sexism exploding into shocking and horrific misogyny throws the film nearly off course. 

Still, despite this scene, much of Mami Wata is impactful. It’s a story about faith and what that represents in modern times. It’s a film about what happens to traditions when those who hold them dear are unwilling to bend, shift and expand their horizons. Though the major conflicts in the film are between the matriarch and the patriarchy, Obasi carefully examines oppression on a large scale and what it does to us all, no matter where we might fall on the gender spectrum.

When it’s all said and done, Mami Wata’s true strength is not its narrative. Instead, it’s the film’s visuals that Obasi created with costume designer Bunmi Demiola Fashina, key hair stylist Adefunke Olowu, and key makeup artist Campbell Precious Arebamen that stand out. Their work is what keeps the film captivating when the narrative falters. 

Mami Wata premiered Jan. 20, 2023 at Sundance Film Festival.