In Conversation with C.J. Obasi on His New 'Kick-Ass' Supernatural Thriller Inspired by Mami Wata

The award-winning Nigerian filmmaker wants to challenge dated stereotypes of African women with this new project.

Award-winning Nigerian filmmaker C.J. Obasi followed-up his critically-acclaimed guerrilla debut feature Ojuju (2014), and sophomore effort O-Town (2015), with an Afrofuturistic short film based on award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor's short story Hello, Moto. Currently touring the international film festival circuit, the short film—titled Hello, Rain—follows a woman who discovers witchcraft in science, and science in witchcraft, when she creates wigs for her friends that give them supernatural powers. The story tackles individual and societal identity, in a fairytale that unfolds via a blend of witchery and technology.

Staying within the world of the supernatural and female-centered narratives, the prolific Obasi—who first caused an international stir with his zombie thriller Ojuju, set against a contemporary Nigeria backdrop—looks to do the same with his next feature film, in what will be another renegade take on a familiar genre, inspired by the age-old West African legend of love and sacrifice known as Mami Wata (Mother Water). Summarized by the filmmaker as a "kick-ass, female-driven, black & white supernatural thriller," the official synopsis of the film reads:

When Zinwe visits her late grandmother's village—a small rural fish village, she must confront her true spiritual destiny, and save her people from the hands of the ruthless and violent Sergeant Jasper, to usher in a new age of blessing and prosperity.

The Mami Wata folklore has taken several unique forms across Africa and its diaspora—primarily in the Americas—as there are a variety of interpretations of what the deity truly represents. In some instances, she's reified as a good spirit, or a mermaid, whose presence in a person's life is a sign of good fortune. Others will describe her as cunning and seductive, or protective yet dangerous, a snake charmer, or a combination of all of the above.

And just as varied are descriptions of her physical being—having long dark hair, very fair skin and compelling eyes; or, in other depictions, she has short hair, and can even be bald. She may appear to her devotees (in dreams and visions) as a beautiful mermaid, complete with a tail. She is also said to walk the streets of African cities in the guise of a beautiful but elusive woman. And the colors of the clothing she most often wears are either red and/or white.

Photo courtesy of C.J. Obasi.

Promising a film that will "overthrow stereotypes about black women, and black cinema by challenging old narratives and revealing new visual possibilities," Obasi's Lagos-based Fiery Film production company will produce Mami Wata starring Lucy Ameh, Ogee Nelson, and Wale Adebayo, with Obasi directing from his own script, and Oge Obasi producing.

Other notable behind-the-camera talent attached to bring the project to life are AMVCA award-winning costume designer, Obijie "Byge" Oru, as well as AMVCA-nominated and BON award-winning make-up artist, Adefunke Olowu.

Mami Wata will be shot in the outskirts of Lagos, in the villages bordering Nigeria and Benin Republic, and near the Atlantic Ocean.

Given the superstition around and taboo (to some) nature of the mythology central to the film's narrative, it's been a challenge attracting the necessary financing required to bring such an ambitious concept to the screen. Hence, the filmmakers have launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise $120,000, in anticipation of a likely fall 2018 principal photography start date.

I spoke briefly with Obasi about the project—its origins, his decision to film in black and white instead of color, telling a woman-centered story against the #MeToo backdrop, amid a rise in attention given to stories about women, and more.

An edited transcript of our exchange follows below.

Tambay Obenson: Mami Wata folklore is not only revered in Nigeria, but also throughout much of West, Central, and Southern Africa, and the African diaspora in the Americas, which means that there isn't a singular, universal representation and understanding of her. Why did you select this particular mythology as the basis, or inspiration for a feature film?

C.J. Obasi: It just hit me. The image of this mermaid goddess in stunning black and white just hit me, and I could see it very clearly. Usually with film projects, you sieve through different ideas and then one just sticks out. But with "Mami Wata," I wasn't even thinking about it. It just happened, and I haven't been able to shake it off. But I like the fact that in Africa and the African diaspora there are different ideologies and beliefs associated with her. I like that over the years it has become more than just a traditional belief, but an idea expressed through a people's spirituality. In West Africa, we have countless folklore, but Mami Wata is one of the few that has a tangible and very organic presence in our daily lives. And It makes you wonder, if colonialism didn't happen, or if it happened, but certain African worlds where excluded from its influence, what would such a society look like? How would I represent that world visually without pandering to stereotypes. Now those questions really spurred me into action.

Since the deity is of deep spiritual significance and even sacred for some within the diaspora, rooted in ancient tradition, do you concern yourself with how your modern genre interpretation of the folklore might be received by those who are more orthodox and traditional?

No. The only people who will have a problem with my interpretation are the church folks; you know, those who think anything even remotely traditional is devilish or something, yet don't have any issues whatsoever buying "Little Mermaid" merchandise for their kids. Anyone who is truly African orthodox will appreciate how we'll uphold core African values and spirituality. At least they should. Because that's exactly what we're doing.

What led to the decision to shoot the film in black and white, instead of color? It's a curious, bold approach, especially in 2018, and for a story that I would immediately visualize as one that would benefit from color. Although I think shooting black and white might help distinguish the film.

I'm a student of all cinema. I have favourite films that are both colour and black and white, but as a personal visual aesthetic I've always leaned towards colour, which was weird to me when I realized that I could not visualize the film in colour. When I picture Mami Wata, I picture deep, contrasted, ultra-stylish black and white, accentuating ethereal landscapes, ocean waves, and gloriously beautiful dark skin. That's what I see. And I absolutely agree that black and white will distinguish the film. There really is so much content being pushed out into the world, so as a filmmaker you immediately want your work to stand out visually. I just believe that making a genre work of this nature, you want to really push the limits of what visual storytelling can be. The work demands that.

I assume you're shooting digital, given your budget. Your stated approach to a film that is "... deep, contrasted, ultra-stylish black and white, accentuating ethereal landscapes, ocean waves, and gloriously beautiful dark skin..." immediately tickles the imagination, as I can visualize how dramatically interesting it could look if you were able to shoot it on some high contrast, black & white 16 or 35mm film stock, and really take advantage of what celluloid has to offer in terms of playing with lighting and shadows, as well as in post-production. Although digital cameras today are almost as comparable.

That would be my ideal choice—shooting on black and white film stock. Alas, the budget, as you said. Even without the issue of a lower budget, there's also the fact that we don't have any film processing labs in Nigeria. So literally, we would be filming blind, without seeing any of our dailies at all, which you can't really pull off, again, without an adequate budget. So the digital option is indeed a saviour for many of us in these cases. In as much as we would love to shoot celluloid, we make do, and there are hacks to get us pretty close to that film texture. It's never the same, but it'll still be pretty sweet. I promise.

Photo courtesy of C.J. Obasi.

When you say that the film will "overthrow stereotypes about black women, and black cinema by challenging old narratives and revealing new visual possibilities," can you further expound on that?

I'm trying to answer this question without spoilers. What I mean by that is, the entire story is driven by strong female characters whose story arcs are not dependent on their boyfriends or husbands, which is something we can never have enough of. You're going to find women who kick-ass and save, and actualize their destinies, while having flaws and being human. Also, the story doesn't do what you expect it to do. And while respecting genre tropes, it challenges old narratives within its genre, as well as within West African society and culture, about a woman's place, etc. It directly challenges and interrogates them, and by so doing charts a new course of visual possibilities. That is to say, there are other ways we can tell our stories. We don't always have to conform to one thing, or one story about us, or one way of making films. We can do anything.

This project also comes at what I think is an opportune moment, as the film industry almost globally has been forced to confront its history of not only gender disparity, but also sexism and misogyny (see the #MeToo movement especially). And even more so with regards to the representation of women of color—specifically black women in this case, as we see demand for varied stories about black women seemingly surge to satiate a hungry, growing audience. So as you take on this story that's inspired by a very popular African folklore, which squarely centers black women, and in ways that we rarely get to see them represented on screen, are you in any way influenced by the zeitgeist?

I've been developing and writing "Mami Wata" since early 2016, pre the #MeToo movement. It just so happens that the themes and philosophy of the story resonate well with the movement, and I'm all for it. Listen, If you go to most African communities, you're going to find women running things. Yeah, sure the men may have all the fancy titles and such, but you'll find that the women really decide how things go within their families and in the larger society, and they do most of the heavy lifting too. This is what I grew up knowing via my mum and my late sisters. I've never been able to see women as second-class citizens, until I became an adult and realized that it was a thing—this global perception of women as somehow inferior to men. Now, I may not be able to champion every single cause, but I sure as hell can make movies with strong, black women kicking ass.

I've come across a few short films inspired by the Mami Wata legend; the one I recall most is fellow Nigerian filmmaker Bolaji Kekere-Ekun's Nkiru, which you've probably seen. But I was actually surprised to find a number of feature films as well, although none of them are familiar to me, including Beninese filmmaker Mustapha Diop's Mamy Wata (1989), which I found very little information on, and doesn't seem to be easily accessed. Although it appears that it traveled internationally (screening at film festivals across Europe for example), which can sometimes be an indication of how strong a film is. Did you perform any research on past films inspired by the folklore, and if so, can you share anything that you discovered, or what you might have learned that maybe influenced your approach to your own film.

I did a lot of research, and I learnt about Diop's Mamy Wata, but I haven't seen it. I also realized that a few filmmakers have tackled, or tried to tackle the subject. Why not? It is an intriguing mythology. I actually think artists don't tackle it nearly enough. And certainly not enough in cinema. But there's also a lot of superstition surrounding the lore. I didn't find many cinematic works about Mami Wata, and those few that exist certainly are not accessible. So with my approach, I realized early on that I would have to treat it as a thriller, and really ground the narrative in reality. But really, most of the stuff I know about Mami Wata comes from oral tradition. Which, as you know, oral tradition is a huge part of what shapes African belief systems, especially in West Africa. But with those very ideas I found very strong gems for me to tackle the even bigger ideas about African femininity, our spirituality and identity.

Your crowdfunding campaign lists a goal of $120,000. Is that the final budget for the film, or do you anticipate having to seek additional funds, and this is just an initial phase?

That's the entire budget for production and post-production, which is really small if you think about the cost of making feature films around the world. We plan to work with a small crew, but the very best, and mostly non-actors, except for the leads, with principal photography set for an intensive four weeks in this gorgeous and untouched fishing village between the Lagos and Benin republic border, right next to the Atlantic Ocean. And the great thing about making a film is that you can do it in stages. So if we can get through principal photography and have our rushes in the can, then that in itself will open up other possibilities for post-production and collaborations. I'm not in a hurry to make the film, if it means compromising on the quality. It's much too important.



After a world premiere at the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen in Germany earlier this year, Obasi's latest work, the aforementioned short film based on Nnedi Okorafor's Hello, Moto, is currently touring the international film festival circuit, drawing praise from fans and critics alike. It's scheduled to make its UK premiere at the Southbank Centre in London on July 20, as part of its annual Africa Utopia program which celebrates arts and culture from the continent. The film will then head west to the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal (one of the world's most significant genre film festival) which kicks off on July 22.

Tambay Obenson is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker. Obenson also is the founder and former operator of Shadow and Act. You can follow him on Twitter at @TambayObenson.

Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Rema Sends Solidarity Message to the 5 Iranian Women Arrested for Dancing to His Music

Rema has spoken out in support of five Iranian girls who were arrested for dancing to his music.

Nigerian Afropop star Rema, sent out a message of solidarity to five Iranian young women who were reportedly arrested for releasing a video dancing to his music.

On International Women’s Day, which occured on March 8th, the women created a buzz online after they released a video showing themselves dancing to the global smash "Calm Down." In the video, the women were wearing no headscarves, while slightly exposing midriffs.

According to reports, the Iranian government soon caught wind of the video, and began looking for the girls. On March 9th, the Shahrak Ekbatan Twitter account—an account that belongs to activists from the Ekbatan area—first alerted the general public by posting the dancing video online and stating that authorities had been asking residents in the area if they knew the women.

"They looked for CCTV footage of Block 13 to identify the girls who were only dancing and were not involved in any political activity. Police were seen checking the footage and questioning the guards," the account said.

Earlier this week, the Ekbatan-based activists reported that the women had been detained and forced to make an apology video, dressed in regalia that completely covered them from head to toe. The news soon caught the attention of Rema, who tweeted out a solidarity message in support of the women earlier this week.

Although it is unclear how long the Iranian women were detained for, the Shahrak Ekbatan Twitter commented under the Twitter thread, stating that the girls were apprehended for about two days.

Historically, Iran girls have faced a number of restrictions that have limited their freedom. Some of these restrictions include legalities that require them to cover their hair and dress modestly in public.

Although there have been demands to abolish the compulsory headscarf rule, no progress has been made in that regard, and the rule is still in effect.

Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

The 10 Best Chiwetel Ejiofor Films

The British-born actor of Nigerian descent consistently delivers, whether it’s in an indie thriller or a comic-book blockbuster.

He’s worked with some of the most notable directors of our time – from Spike Lee to Steve McQueen – and for each film, Chiwetel Ejiofor brings his A-game. Over the years, his trademark intensity and commitment to roles have endeared him to filmmakers and audiences alike.

Born to Nigerian parents who moved to the U.K. to flee the Biafran War, he grew up in South London. When he was 11 years old, Ejiofor suffered a great tragedy. While traveling back to Nigeria for a wedding, a car accident killed his father and left Ejiofor seriously injured.

Theater offered him some solace. As a kid, he enjoyed taking part in plays, which gave him a way to understand the world. As a teen, he joined the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and was cast by Steven Spielberg for Amistad, after only three months into his course.

In 2007, he stunned audiences in a production of Othello at London’s Donmar Warehouse and earned a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor. A few years later, he went on to earn an Oscar nod for his role in 12 Years A Slave. Despite his success, he stays true to his African roots, as his directorial feature, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, attests – along with his love for both Crystal Palace and the Super Eagles alike.

OkayAfrica breaks down his best roles over the years so far.

Amistad (1997)

Amistad - Traileryoutu.be

With an ensemble that includes Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey, Ejiofor more than holds his own — even though this was his feature film debut in the early days of his career. Then 19, he was cast by Spielberg for his epic historical drama, based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny aboard the ship, La Amistad, and the international legal battle that followed when abducted Mende men overthrew their captors’ ship off the coast of Cuba. Ejiofor plays James Covey, a young, formerly enslaved man who serves as an interpreter for the defendants in the film’s central trial.

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Dirty Pretty Things | 'Innocent’ (HD) - Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor | MIRAMAXwww.youtube.com

In his first lead role, Ejiofor shines as Okwe, an undocumented Nigerian doctor living in London, who makes a living as a cab driver by day and a hotel attendant by night. Ejiofor is central to the film’s success, playing an immigrant who carries a sadness from his past with him. Directed by Stephen Frears, the film is a hypnotic thriller, but it also has much to say about illegal immigrants trying to make a life in the U.K. To play the part, Ejiofor reportedly copied his Nigerian accent from his parents. As the late critic Roger Ebert notes, this film shows he’s a natural actor with leading man presence, who has the “rare ability to seem good without being sappy.”

Love Actually (2003)

Love Actually (2003) Official Trailer - Colin Firth, Emma Thompson Movie HDwww.youtube.com

A beloved staple in homes across the world, come December, it’s hard to believe this film is 20 years old already. It’s a role that remains close to Ejiofor’s heart, because, as he told Entertainment Weekly, the film is, “so fully romantic and optimistic.” He plays Keira Knightley’s new husband who has no idea his best friend, a pre-Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln, secretly pines after her. Although we haven’t seen much of Ejiofor in the rom-com genre, this film gives us a glimpse of what we’re missing by not having more of his charming self in these kinds of roles.

Kinky Boots (2005)

Kinky Boots | Official Trailer (HD) - Joel Edgerton, Chiwetel Ejiofor | MIRAMAXwww.youtube.com

“Ladies, gentlemen, and those who’ve yet to make up your mind,” it's Chiwetel Ejiofor as we’d yet to see him before. Playing Lola, the drag queen who helps save the shoe factory of Joel Edgerton’s Charlie, Ejiofor commits to the part wholeheartedly. He sports those titular high boots, makeup, nails and false eyelashes, as well as dances in the aforementioned heels. Not someone who’s known for his comedic or musical talents, Ejiofor positively delights in the role – even if he didn’t express any interest in going on to reprise the part in the hit Broadway version of the film.

Inside Man (2006)

Inside Man Official Trailer #1 - Christopher Plummer Movie (2006) HDwww.youtube.com

The second time Ejiofor was directed by Spike Lee (after a small role in She Hate Me), he worked alongside Denzel Washington. As Detective Bill Mitchell to Washington’s Detective Keith Frazier, Ejiofor and Washington set about trying to solve an elaborate New York City bank heist in New York City. Ejiofor had to do some work to nail his American accent, but he proved his acting chops once again, as part of a formidable ensemble that also included Jodie Foster and Clive Owen.

Children of Men (2006)

Children of Men - Trailerwww.youtube.com

Owen and Ejiofor would once again feature together in a film that same year, in the explosive sci-fi drama, Children of Men. Who can forget the car scene – considered one of the greatest tracking shots in cinematic history – in which Ejiofor, a radical political activist, and Owen try to save Julianne Moore’s character? Although he doesn’t have a major part in Alfonso Cuaron’s film, Ejiofor brings a fiery intensity to his character that ensures he’s still thought of long after he leaves the screen.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 YEARS A SLAVE - Official Trailer (HD)www.youtube.com

The role that earned Ejiofor a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actor is in the film that won Best Picture at the 2014 ceremony. As real-life Solomon Northup, the actor went to places we’d yet to see him go in portraying a free Black man from the North who is kidnapped and sold into slavery during the 1840s. Ejiofor won a host of acting awards for playing Northup in the run-up to the Oscars, losing out on that coveted statue to Dallas Buyer’s Club’s Matthew McConaughey. But the anger, frustration, hope and dignity he brought to Northup lives on in movie lore, and it can’t be understated how much of a role he played in the film’s success, and the way it changed the industry in the years to come.

Doctor Strange (2016)

Marvel Studios' Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness | Official Trailerwww.youtube.com

Get you a man who can do Shakespeare and Marvel! Joining Benedict Cumberbatch in the Marvel franchise, Ejiofor plays Baron Mordo, a complex villain who exists in the gray of the Multiverse of Madness. It’s fun to watch him embody this character, which is developed a little differently from the comics and takes on a more complicated dynamic. At first a friend of Doctor Strange, Mordo experiences a deep change through the course of the film, allowing us to revel in the expanse of Ejiofor’s range as an actor. Personally for the actor himself, the film was a thrill too, as he’d grown up reading comics like Watchmen, too.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019)

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind | Offical Trailer [HD] | Netflixwww.youtube.com

For Ejiofor’s directorial debut, he looked to his home continent. Set in Malawi and based on the true story of inventor William Kamkwamba, it won him the NAACP Image Award for outstanding direction of a motion picture in 2020. Ejiofor wrote the screenplay and also starred in the film, as Kamkwamba’s father, and learned to speak Chichewa, the local language, for it. The story of Kamkwamba’s love of science and desire to find solutions to the challenges his family face remains inspiring, and we look forward to Ejiofor’s next directorial venture.

News Brief
Photo by Amos Gumulira

Malawi’s President Says Half the Country Damaged by Cyclone Freddy

The death toll in Malawi has reached 447 people, with 282 residents missing and close to 400,000 people still displaced.

It has been a month since Cyclone Freddy ravaged Madagascar and then made a downfall in Malawi and Mozambique. But the aftermath of the tragedy still rages on. As more officials work to uncover the devastating effects of the cyclone that led to the loss of many lives, more details are surfacing.

In an interview with The Guardian published on Monday (March 20th), Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera said that over half of his country has been damaged by Cyclone Freddy.

“This demonstrates that climate change issues are real and we are standing right in the path of it,” Chakwera told The Guardian. Chakwera also stated that the devastation of the cyclone could very well keep Malawi in the cycle of poverty.

According to reports from the country’s authorities, the death toll in Malawi has reached 447 people, with 282 residents missing and close to 400,000 people still displaced. (When you factor in Mozambique and Madagascar, there have been close to 600 confirmed deaths.)

Cyclone Freddy first mounted in Australia before traveling across the Indian Ocean and settling in south-east Africa, where it destroyed property and killed residents across Mozambique, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and now, Malawi. This intense deadly storm has been dubbed one of the longest-lasting tropical cyclones ever recorded in history.

Chakwera also detailed the effects of the tragedy, stating that the country, which has a population of over 19 million people, was in dire straits.

“We need everyone’s help and support for this tragedy to be mitigated,” Chakwera said. “We are suffering and we can’t meet the needs. We have set up temporary camps and food is needed, shelter, yes, but must go past that and build stronger because of the damage.

There is also concern over an elevated cholera risk; since last year, there has been a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 1,700, making it one of the deadliest on record. Those numbers are now expected to go up.

“With the floods, people’s toilets have been washed away and most people have no access to safe drinking water,” Storn Kabuluzi, health services director, said.

Kengol DJ/Jailtime Records

Get to Know Kengol DJ’s Cameroonian Drill Music

The 32-year-old is blending drill and coupé-décalé—all from a prison in Cameroon.

Kengol DJ, born Magloire Noumedem, entered a world of suffering when faced with intense stares from the shadows of the notorious Central Prison of Douala—a place which operates more like a small walled city than a high-security jail.

"Arriving in prison is exactly as you might imagine — I can only laugh now, everyone half-naked, and the voices ringing out...it was terrifying." Kengol is an emotional man. Over two hours in his presence, he acts out his life experiences rather than recount them. It becomes an interview that is as much a performance, where Kengol lays himself bare—spitting bars wide-eyed one minute, singing his heart out the next, gesticulating wildly as tears run down his face.

The 32-year-old's latest single “Ca Va Aller' (It's Gonna Be Ok),” his cry of survival, is a fresh take on Drill that "Cameroon has never seen before--I call it Atalaku Drill,” Kengol explains, “I've crossed it with coupé-décalé." It was released this month on Jail Time Records, a label set up in prison to rehabilitate talent fallen to the wayside.

Noumedem was, by his own admission, lost to the streets when he was arrested for possession of drugs and sentenced to a term of 6 months: "Not many go inside to find the light, but I started to have visions. I could work day and night on my music, my God-given talents were no longer lost.”

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