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Mami Wata: Oge Obasi’s Resistance Act
Mami Wata, C.J. Obasi's film which premiered at Sundance in February, stops by Nigerian cinemas today. Here's its journey examined through the eyes of its producer, Oge Obasi.
“Do you know how we left Nigeria?” She asked.
“No. How did you leave?” I asked. She knew I didn’t know but she asked anyway.
The way they left the country, by road, on the heels of mounting pressures, travelling through a stretch of uncertainty, hoping to settle, to find a home was the same way the film, Mami Wata shook itself free, demanding to be made and given room to its liberation (its voyage).
It stopped at Sundance, renewed its energy, and continued its journey.
Now, it is home, arms like branches reaching across continents with legs firmly rooted in molten gold of global ovation. This was not always its life. Oge Obasi cradled its fragile body — featherlight, an idea — and fed it all she got until her will became its will, then it grew and continues to live.
She hasn’t always worked in film. Although she is now one of the most respected producers in the industry, she came here by accident.
“I am a nerd that doesn’t really like routine and I was at a particular point when I hadn’t figured out what I was supposed to do and so, I was, you know, pretty much doing everything. I would get bored. I wouldn’t feel like my energy is being utilised, maybe physically and then I’d switch to a more physical job and I feel I wasn’t being utilised intellectually,” Oge said, shrugging the answer away.
It was during the search for meaningful and challenging work that she decided to pick up motion graphics. The day she met her trainer, he was on the set of the video for TY Bello’s Greenland.
She was in the shadows, very fascinated by the structure and activities, wondering what everyone’s role was and how the production was managed. It was there that filmmaking held her hand and sucked her into its vortex.
From that set, she went on to work on other TV and film projects including The Figurine, Amstel Malta Box Office, Miss Earth Nigeria, Heineken’s Champion’s Planet, Desperate Housewives Africa, and MTV Base Shuga in the capacities of production coordinator and production manager.
Figurine was her first film work experience and it came about two years into her production career, in 2009. Working on the Kunle Afolayan classic was pivotal in shaping how Oge saw films and produced them.
“I was pretty much learning on the job. This was my first film experience and it made me realize that I wanted to do more films. I went on to work on other projects but there was just something not complete. I struggled with the scripts of some of these projects and I quickly had to learn how to detach.
“I was like, okay, I came here to be a production manager and I will do my job. Don’t get me wrong. The concepts of the film were also nice or good but I always felt like we could take more risks.
“I mean, why not go further? Why are we acting like we discovered filmmaking?”
“Did you find what you were looking for? What changed?” I asked.
“I met C.J. That’s what changed. He sent me a script to read when he was supposed to be wooing me,” she said, wearing a shy girl’s smile.
She would smile like that every time her longtime collaborator and husband, Mami Wata’s director, C.J. Obasi came up during the conversation. Their collaboration has birthed some of the most iconic films in new Nollywood.
The themes usually explore popular African myths and legends with ethereal feels and esoteric approaches.
In 2014, they made, with Oge producing, the acclaimed zero-budget zombie feature Ojuju, which won the Best Nigerian Film award at the Africa International Film Festival the same year, and screened in festivals such as Fantasia Film Festival, Africa in Motion, and almost twenty other film festivals, and has been optioned for series production by a major Hollywood studio.
They also worked on the semi-autobiographical gangster saga O-Town, which was an official selection at the Goteborg Film Festival, and received three nominations at the 2016 Africa Movie Academy Awards: Best Nigerian Film, Best Promising Actress, and Achievement in Soundtrack, winning the latter.
“When I met C.J. and realised how incredibly talented he is, I told him, ‘Lagos will chew you and spit you out. All these things, ideas and stuff, you know, it’s not something that will be received easily.’”
Despite teasing him over his decision to pursue a filmmaking career in Nigeria, Oge made a personal conviction to support him because he was likely to face unique difficulties and she didn’t want his light to dim out.
In December 2022, news broke that C.J. Obasi was taking his newest film, Mami Wata to the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The announcement elicited excitement within Nollywood and the African film industry, in general. Nollywood had made it to the global stage. The much-needed form of international acclaim had come.
Behind the scenes, Oge beamed with pride for the few seconds she could afford before returning to problem-solving mode. She had kept her word. Here they were on the main stage. His light shining brighter than ever and her journey as an international producer reaching another important milestone.
On September 7, the US trailer for the film dropped in time for its theatrical release in several countries following a successful festival run.
The train is moving. And in the right direction.
Meet Mami Wata
The first time Oge heard about Mami Wata, she and C.J. were on a bus going to Lagos from Owerri, where they lived at the time. He tapped her and showed her the film’s logline on his Notes app.
She read it, loved it and said yes.
“He was very happy because I don’t say ‘yes’ every time,” she said and laughed.
They finished the project they came to Lagos for and went back to Owerri. The whole time, C.J. talked about the project — he wanted it to be black and white. He saw what the film looked like — for which he didn’t have a story. The logline was clear and that was enough.
He sold the project to her and explained why the film needed to be made. She was sold from the moment she read the logline and immediately entered producing mode, thinking about where the resources for the film would come from.
“By this time, we had done two projects. One was zero budget and the other, low budget. We missed a lot of business opportunities because we didn’t pass quality control for those two films. This time, I was sure I wanted to make Mami Wata but I made it clear that it was not going to be low budget. I wanted us to make money from it and do great work that could be better positioned,” she explained.
So, they began the search for resources and things got interesting. What followed was years of people saying no, usually because of the title, the premise, and the black-and-white pictures.
The title and premise were the most common reasons for the rejection. In Nigeria, Mami Wata has spiritual significance to a lot of people: it is a water spirit and people are usually extra cautious when the name comes up.
Legend says that her mirror represents a movement through the present and the future; her devotees are able to create their own reality through imaging of themselves in their recreation of Mami Wata's world. In this world, one can embody her sacred powers, fulfilling the inventions of their own reality.
In the film, C.J. explores the relationship between the people and Mami Wata, and the journey of two sisters trying to restore the deity to her former glory in the community.
People said ‘no’ to funding the project and usually capped it by calling on the Blood of Jesus.
Some argued against the film’s palette, that it would struggle to find an audience. Someone told them, “You are my guy, you are my friend. You people are my people but if I know someone who wants to invest in this film, I will only ask one question – ‘is it still going to be black and white?’
“If the person says ‘yes,’ I’ll tell them, ‘don’t invest in it.’”
That was the day Oge made up her mind to make the film no matter the cost.
“It was so dramatic because I told C.J., ‘I want to officially tell you today that we are going to shoot this film in black and white.’
“All these while, I hadn’t said anything when people shared their thoughts but the last comment got to me. So, I began learning about black-and-white films and how to make them. I didn’t know how we were going to shoot it because we continued trying to find resources but I knew the film had to be made,” she said.
(Oge Obasi standing in front of the film’s poster. Source: Oge Obasi)
Support trickles in
In late September of 2018, while Oge was pregnant, Mami Wata got its first validation. They took the project to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and pitched it at the OUAGA Film Lab where other people looked at and treated the project as something special.
“They were treating us like good grandchildren that decided to come back to their roots. Everybody was thanking us for making the film because of the cultural heritage it explores.
“We were with all these Burkina Faso, Senegalese filmmakers and the OGs of West African filmmaking. There was so much appreciation for the film and it was different from the nos we were getting. We really didn’t have to sell it to them because there was a shared sentiment,” Oge narrated.
The film received the coveted EAVE prize at the event which helped it move forward and Oge got the chance to attend the Producer’s Workshop in 2019.
They went on to pitch the film at Durban Film Mart. It was there that someone senior told them that if they did a great job with the film, it could get into Sundance. This was in November 2019.
She took this as additional confirmation of the project’s potential impact and told C.J. that the film needed to be shot in 2020.
They went looking for a cinematographer and specifically searched for a woman. Lilies Soares came on board and is responsible for the stunning frames in the film. Her work in the film won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematography at Sundance Film Festival 2023 and she is now the first woman to win Best Cinematography at FESPACO.
Oge “put C.J. to work” and every week, he met with Lilies to discuss the script. This was with zero money in Oge’s account.
Soon, someone from her producer’s workshop in 2019 reached out and sent them some money for the film. “She was curious about the project and I was shocked that a total stranger would give us money for it.”
The money was split between hair and costume, which are key elements in the film’s storytelling, and advance payments to other crew members. Everybody went to work and Oge went to look for money.
The project started to come together. She got an equipment partner who later ghosted while she had to deal with rising prices as rumours of a virus started to trend in the news.
Then, the virus was confirmed and pre-production paused because everyone needed to stay at home.
The world shut down.
(Writer and Director, C.J. Obasi and Producer, Oge Obasi. Source: IMDb)
EndSARS and Japa
“The way we left Nigeria was very funny,” Oge laughed as she narrated.
“Before the pandemic, we started looking at possible locations. We thought about Gambia, then Ghana but they were giving us quotes in dollars. I looked for possible locations in Nigeria but every beach I found didn’t look untouched. They looked too modern and wouldn’t fit the film’s visual direction.
“We thought about Benin Republic but dismissed it because of the language barrier. I already told C.J. that we’d settle anywhere we end up shooting the film.”
COVID and EndSARS made the decision for them.
In October 2020, as Nigeria began recovering from the COVID-19 lockdown, young people took to the streets to protest police brutality. The government attacked protesters in Lagos, leaving many dead.
It was Oge’s last straw.
“When the shooting was happening, I told C.J. to pack very light. I was ready to sell everything we had here. I carried my baby and we found our way to Cotonou, Benin Republic.”
They didn’t know anyone and found the cheapest hotel to stay in. The next day, they found an apartment and have been living in Benin Republic since then.
Production moved there, even with the sparse resources available. The shoot was set for December, although it stretched into January 2021. Everybody involved in the project started coming into the country after long months of working virtually.
“We were struggling but I knew the film had to be made. I knew we had a globally impactful film on our hands and I was willing to do the work. I have a nose for these things. An instinct,” Oge said, her voice echoing the strong conviction.
Filmmaking is hard but this film was particularly difficult to make. Production partners reneged, even the initial equipment partner backed out of the deal and became unreachable. They were on foreign soil and the Nigerian situation hadn’t improved much. Everything pointed to the possibility of the film not being made but Oge “does not get fazed by symptoms”.
She describes herself as a problem solver who charts ways for projects to succeed and was intent on doing that for this film.
Getting equipment was a big deal. Nobody wanted to give equipment for the film. “People backed out once they heard that it was for Mami Wata. We had to shuffle the lists and widen our search. The day the equipment finally came in, I held my breath till they crossed the border.”
One particular memory sticks out for Oge and she described it as the day that fully confirmed that the project needed to be made.
The food on set was dwindling fast and there was no money to replenish it. She boarded a motorcycle into town and alighted at the bus stop. She was going nowhere exactly. She just wanted to think about where resources would come from.
“The sun became too hot, so I walked into the bank by the road to collect cool air from the Air Conditioner. The banks in Benin are so efficient. There was no queue and soon, it was my turn. I wasn’t moving when they wanted to attend to me and everybody was concerned.
“The customer care guy called me and asked me to sit by his desk. He made the mistake of asking me what the problem was and I started to talk. I talked about all the frustrations we had faced with the project, how it needed to be made and how we needed more food on set but I had no resources for it,” she narrated.
The man listened patiently, then called his wife who took Oge to get a lot of food stuff and gave her some cash. It was manna from heaven.
Shooting continued and the film eventually wrapped. Everyone went home exhausted, having put their best feet forward.
Oge counts the hitches as part of the process and said, “there are a lot of great people involved in this project. People who made sacrifices, who were committed to the craft. They let themselves soak in the beauty of the film and you can see it on screen. It is because of them that this film needs to succeed.”
The film had its world premiere at Sundance in February 2023, making it the first Nollywood film to do so. There, it impressed the jury, audiences and critics alike. It has won several awards globally from reputable festivals and has snagged important distribution deals in North America and other parts of the world.
Mami Wata continues to travel.
It’s now home
Today, September 8, 2023, Mami Wata lands on the big screens in Nigeria.
Just two years ago, the possibility of a film like this getting the kind of pre-screening anticipation Mami Wata has enjoyed seemed farfetched.
When asked about her expectations of the film’s performance in the Nigerian box office, Oge is certain that some people will find it worth their time.
“There’s a demographic that are the cool kids, that I’m sure would have a lot to say, probably go watch it multiple times if the economy allows because everybody is managing right now, right? And every time they watch it, they’ll come out with something, so there will be a discourse.
“What I worry the most about is the projection in our cinemas because there hasn’t been an update in recent years. And I don’t know the state of most of them. It’s a black and white film and the screens need to do it justice.
“That aside, Nigerians are too diverse for you to have a singular expectation,” she said. “And that’s the beauty of our audience.”