One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn a lot about the filmmakers from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival through the art that these storytellers share with us, there’s always more we can learn about them as people. This year, we decided to get to the bottom of those artistic wells with our Backstory questionnaire!
“I always knew I wanted to make films,” says writer-director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi. “But after getting a degree and working a 9–5 — sometimes 5–9 — I remember being at work, doing night shifts in the server room, streaming videos of filmmakers in Sundance and thinking, ‘One day, I’ll be here.’” A decade later, Obasi fulfilled his promise to himself with Mami Wata, which premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic category at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Obasi’s third feature-length film follows sisters Prisca and Zinwe as they try to restore order to their oceanside village of Iyi, whose people have divided into two camps: those who still place their trust in their current leader — who acts as a conduit for the mermaid goddess Mami Wata — and those who would impose a new system, one that does not consider the water deity at all.
Mami Wata’s stunning monochrome palette impressed at the 2023 Festival, landing cinematographer Lílis Soares the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Cinematography. U.S. audiences have a chance to watch the modern fable for themselves thanks to a September 29 theatrical release.
Below, discover the inspiration behind Mami Wata, why the story needs to be told now, and why Obasi believes filmmaking is important to the world.
What was the biggest inspiration behind this film?
My two late sisters — Nnenna and Ebere, who inspired the main characters Prisca and Zinwe. The film is dedicated to them.
Why does this story need to be told now?
Because there are many conceptions about African cinema that need to be updated, or revoked even. And the time to present a new conversation about what that is, what “blackness” or “Africanness” even means, is now, and even more so from an authentic and truthful place. There are already many conversations going on, and Mami Wata is going to have its own place in that conversation.
Films are lasting artistic legacies; what do you want yours to say?
I hope the film says a lot of things, chief of which is that African cinema is not monolithic, and that we can have autonomy over our vision and our own cinema when we root and ground ourselves in our true and authentic selves. And secondly, seeking balance perhaps can be our salvation. In Mami Wata, we find two opposing ideologies, two kinds of people, old versus new, ancient versus modern, much like today. We have the left or the right, right or wrong, good and evil, and everyone has a perception limited by their own views and biases — unable to budge or welcome another way. With Mami Wata, we are perhaps presenting a third way, the way of balance. And we hope that at the end of the movie, the character that stays with us on Earth is the one who finds balance for her life and for her people.
How do you want people to feel after they see your film?
In cinema, we sometimes become too comfortable, even complicit about the kind of films we like, the genre we are fans of, and this mostly excludes us from new possibilities. With Mami Wata, I want the audience to have a new experience and to go away with a new vision and thought for new possibilities for what cinema can be and what humanity can be.
Tell us an anecdote about casting or working with your actors.
The entire casting took place during the peak of lockdown, so none of it could take place in person. We put out a casting call across West Africa because we wanted the casting to reflect the nature of the story we were telling — Mami Wata, a deity rooted in West African folklore and spirituality. We had an Anglophone and Francophone cast living and working together, and in the end we all formed a form of pidgin communication that very much mirrored the language in the film. You could say we became the “people of Iyi” from the movie.
Your favorite part of making the film? Memories from the process?
Looking back now, I can say that there are many favorite memories from the shoot — even the good and bad. But one that easily stands out was sometime during day 5 or 6 of the shoot, and we had finished shooting a really complicated scene. It was one of those nights where all the elements came together and just worked. And I remember thinking, “Boy, I’m really out here in a faraway village in the Republic of Benin, making the movie of my dreams.”
What was a big challenge you faced while making this film?
We started off the production with the biggest hit when our equipment partner pulled out of the production with no explanations. We had to channel funds that were dedicated to the actual running of the production to renting equipment and transporting it across the border from Lagos into the Republic of Benin. This took a big chunk out of our overall budget and had a domino effect across the board.
Why is filmmaking important to you? Why is it important to the world?
You just need to close your eyes and try to imagine a world without film, without cinema, and you can almost feel how impossible that is. Film gave my life color and meaning and, I will go as far as saying, purpose. It’s the first thing that I wake up thinking about and the last thing before I sleep. The only times I’ve ever been depressed were times I either couldn’t make films or I thought I had failed as a filmmaker. Filmmaking is important to the world because anyone, anywhere, irrespective of your story, can walk into a theater or turn on a movie at home and instantly see themselves or the world in a new way. This can be for good or for bad, of course, but the world needs these choices to reflect our humanity and remind us that there are possibilities and vistas beyond our spheres of existence.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be doing?
Between a rapper and a published author. Actually, I always wanted to be a writer, really. As a kid, I started initialing my name as C.J. Obasi in answer to my teenage craze for the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, C.S. Lewis, H.G. Wells, J.P. Clark, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.D. Salinger. In my mind, they belonged to a very special fellowship, and I wanted to be a part of them. The name just stuck.
What three things do you always have in your refrigerator?
Water, apples, yogurt
One thing people don’t know about me is ______.
I can rap. Freestyle and all.
Early bird or night owl?
What’s your favorite film that has come from the Sundance Institute or Festival?
Too many! Reservoir Dogs would be up there. Hard Eight, for sure. Then Little Miss Sunshine, Mother of George, Fruitvale Station, Get Out, Hereditary, The Witch.