Lagos, Nigeria – On October 15, when C J Obasi heard that his film Mami Wata had been officially selected as Nigeria’s entry for the 2024 Oscars, he was elated.
“It felt great. I think we definitely deserve it, and everyone worked so hard on this film and bled so much for it,” Obasi told Al Jazeera. “It’s always a big deal when you get what you deserve here. I never take it for granted just because I deserve it. I’m super grateful to the Nigerian Oscar selection committee.”
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Mami Wata, Obasi’s third feature-length film, is a black-and-white fantasy thriller inspired by the rich folklore of coastal West Africa. Shot in 2021 and released in January, it has a running time of 107 minutes. The title is a Nigerian pidgin reference to the mermaid or all-powerful water goddess believed to provide healing, wealth and protection to her worshippers. The film is also in Nigerian pidgin.
Set in the fictional village of Iyi and shot in the Republic of Benin, Mami Wata is a truly West African affair. It is the story of two sisters, Prisca (played by Ivorian actress Evelyne Ily) and Zinwe (played by Nigerian actress Uzoamaka Aniunoh) who try to bring harmony back to their seaside village which is split between two groups: one that believes in their current leader, a messenger for the water goddess, and another that wants to establish a new system without the deity.
Obasi says he began writing Mami Wata in March 2016 and over the next five years, wrote the story across 10 drafts.
On the international scene, Mami Wata has already been a hit, screening in at least 15 festivals globally. In 2021, it made the final cut in the 78th Venice International Film Festival in 2021. In January 2023, Mami Wata had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize for Cinematography.
The release has also come with critical acclaim internationally. Variety Magazine called the film “a stark black-and-white Oscar entry that weaves a bewitching fable with haunting images”.
“This visually beautiful and charismatically acted film is a fierce expressionist reverie or parable of power, shot in a lustrous, high-contrast black and white,” wrote The Guardian in its review.
Eventually, Mami Wata was submitted by Nigeria for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film – the country’s third-ever entry.
The road to the Oscars
Lagos-based film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo says Mami Wata was the only choice for the 2024 Oscars.
“It already has international exposure,” he said. “So part of the hard work has been done. Again, no other film in non-English from Nigeria fits the dimensions demanded by the Oscars. Mami Wata is just more thoughtfully done than its peers.”
But the road to its selection as Nigeria’s entry for the Oscars was blighted by a lukewarm reception at home.
On September 8, Mami Wata made its debut in Nigeria. According to What Kept Me Up, a Nigerian film blog, the premiere came at a time when there were no major competing films. However, during the opening weekend, it was difficult to watch the film due to inconsistency in showtimes at cinemas.
Esther Nwajiaku, a Lagos-based content creator, said it took two trips to the cinema before she could watch the film. “The film showed for only two weeks, and with mostly ridiculous time slots,” she told Al Jazeera. “The best chance I got to see it was by 12pm on a Sunday at the FilmHouse cinema in Surulere. The first time I went with friends to see the film at the same cinema in Surulere, it didn’t show.”
The average length of time that films spend in Nigerian cinemas is between four to six weeks, though some films stay up to eight weeks. But Mami Wata was reportedly pulled from cinemas after less than three weeks.
Industry insiders say even before and during the short run, its local distributor, FilmOne, reportedly did very little marketing to promote the film. The typical rollout of press screenings, premiere, and other digital marketing push were visibly absent.
“Right now, you find that the UK is doing a much better job in pushing the film than what played out back home,” said Jerry Chiemeke, a London-based lawyer and film critic who described the promotion as abysmally poor.
“How do you put such a highly anticipated film in tight morning slots where viewership will be low, and even with those slots, people tried seeing the film and they were told that it’s “simply not showing”? he asked.
FilmOne did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Obasi declined to speak on screening issues the film encountered in Nigeria, saying he would do so at a later date when he is ready. “For now, I’m just enjoying the theatrical run across several territories around the world,” he says.
Nollywood’s genre dynamics
Some critics say the case of Mami Wata’s botched showings in Nigeria reaffirms the popular notion that commercial films in Nollywood tend to overshadow the diversity offered by niche or arthouse filmmakers because the volume of promotion and distribution for the former vastly outstrips that for the latter.
For Aigbokhaevbolo, arthouse films don’t stand a chance in Nigeria. “The care and thoughtful promotion they get in other climes are absent in Nigeria. The audience isn’t as developed,” he said.
The data seems to support this: the highest-grossing films at the Nigerian box office are comedies. They are also often widely publicised and have an extended time in cinemas. Based on data from the Cinema Exhibitors Association of Nigeria (CEAN), five of the top earning Nigerian films of all time include Battle on Buka Street (2022), a comedy-drama that earned N655 million ($524,000), Omo Ghetto: The Saga (2020) earned N636 million ($508,800), The Wedding Party (2016) earned N452 million ($361,600), The Wedding Party 2 (2017) earned N433 million ($346,400), and Chief Daddy earned N387 million ($309,600) at the box office. None of them has received as much praise from critics as Mami Wata.
But not everyone is convinced.
Anita Eboigbe, co-founder of media outlet In Nollywood, does not believe popular Nollywood genres overshadow arthouse films but says it is a case of what is more accessible to the audience.
“If the audience finds a type of genre more accessible, they will grow to like it,” she said. “If it is hard for the audience to build a relationship with a particular genre, they will not be easily drawn to it.”
Eboigbe further explains that several factors influence what interests the audience, including what industry stakeholders feel is profitable or unprofitable.
The niche or arthouse labels have also affected the way certain films are received and promoted, says Obasi. “These labels just give the [industry] cabals the excuse to regurgitate the same narrative. Because once you put that label on it, the everyday audience doesn’t want to go near it because they think it’s beyond them,” he said. “Try to challenge the audience with a good story, and the promise of an amazing cinematic experience, and see what happens. This is what they’re afraid to do.”
Meanwhile, Mami Wata is still opening in cinemas across the world, with expected premieres in Germany and Austria in January 2024. The film crew also says its theatrical release is expected soon in multiple markets including the United States and Switzerland.
The film’s fans were hoping it would fare better than Nigeria’s previous Oscar entries. In 2019, Lionheart, Nigeria’s first entry – which was co-written by Obasi – was disqualified because of its English dialogue while the second entry, The Milkmaid (2020) did not make the shortlist in 2021.
But the Academy Awards announced a shortlist on Thursday that did not include Mami Wata, disappointing many who had been backing it.
Still, Chiemeke says the film brought a different flavour compared with previous entries.
“Mami Wata provides a conduit between old and new, digging deep into Nigerian folklore while deploying a fresh approach to storytelling,” he said. “It’s our best shot yet, our most realistic.”