From 'Evil Dead' to 'Mami Wata': CJ & Oge Obasi's fascinating swim to Sundance
This two have seen it all in the fight for their dreams. Now, it's all finally coming true.
Hearing about this horror movie piqued the curiosity of the three-year-old. Finally getting to see that movie made a lasting impression, one that influenced his choice of genre and style and kicked off the long, challenging, yet fascinating journey to creating the globe-trotting Mami Wata.
Since watching that movie, Obasi, with the help of his producer and wife, Oge Obasi, has made Ojuju, a 95-minute, zero-budget zombie story that is also on IndieWire's Top 12 Best Zombie Movies of All Time list, O-Town, a short film called Hello, Rain, and now, his third feature-length film, MamiWata, which has taken the world by storm. Throughout his filmmaking career, he has had his faithful partner fighting by his side to make their dreams come true in the face of several obstacles.
In this chat with Pulse, the award-winning writer/director and producer walk us through their incredible lives, from their origin stories to their union and the totality of their career so far.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How it all began
C.J.: Three years old is when filmmaking started for me. There was this movie called Evil Dead. They used to play it, I think, every Friday or Saturday night on the local channel. I'm the last in the family, so all my other siblings wouldn't let me watch. But every day, they would talk about the movie and how it was the scariest thing ever. It just made me more curious to watch. I think it was maybe around four or so that my elder brother finally let me watch. It's my first ever memory of movies. I remember just the anticipation that I had built up just to watch that, sitting in the living room, we had this old black and white TV. The movie starts with this very long opening shot of just the camera moving through the woods. You just follow the camera moving through the woods, and then it ends up in this very mysterious, spooky cabin in the woods.
Because they had built up this hype about monsters and demons and things like that, I was expecting to see monstrous creatures emerging from the darkness. When you watch the entire movie, you realise that none of that ever happens in the film; the entire film is people getting possessed after the book is read and the so-called force is unleashed. My point is that Evil Dead did all of that without really showing anything, and I think the power of suggestion, which is intricate to cinematic language, stayed with me. I remember even as a kid, I would draw things, like my own rendition of films that I liked, and I started to do that early on. My artistic form became more advanced as I got older. At some point, I would have storytelling sessions and try to reenact some of my favourite scenes, then have my own versions of some of the scenes I liked in movies while playing with my friends. I think that was my beginning as a filmmaker, even though I may not have known what being a filmmaker was.
Oge: I think the path chose me. I didn't go looking, but in my journey, I am that person who has pretty much done a lot of things. It all came together, developing me for this time. When those things were going on, I was like, 'Why am I this today and then that tomorrow?' Eventually, you find that everything ends up being useful, and it is just like a preparation ground. I walked into a set for the first time where they were filming TY Bello's Greenland, and it was intriguing. I was working with a guy who was also into directing and stuff. For the first time, I found internal balance. I found something that challenged me physically and mentally at the same time. I was a production assistant for a while. I loved it so much that I did it for free because it was interesting to me. My first movie set was Figurine (2009).
I got into producing shortly before I met C.J. Again, I didn't go looking; it found me pretty much because I didn't come across stories that inspired me to go all out for it. I could manage your production and make sure that everything was on point, but I was never attached storywise. With C.J., I didn't have that problem. I do not have his background in film, so I had to learn on the job. I was more of a book person in my formative years, so for me, an awesome movie is a movie I see and I'm like, 'I would have loved to read that as a book'. There are all those details they can't tell you because they have just like 90 minutes to tell that story. The script, the stories, and the things he wanted to do did that for me. Sometimes, I don't even know what he's talking about, but I want to see it happen. I want to see it on paper, and I want to see how that comes to life.
Mixing work with love
C.J.: It's like any other kind of relationship. When you know, you know. Outside of the film conversations, this side is enriching as well. I feel like it's enriching from every angle, beyond just film. She will tell you I'm more of a film person. Yes, she's a film producer, but I eat, sleep, and dream film, so finding someone who can do that for you outside of film was always the goal as far as a life partnership is concerned.
Oge: When we met, I wasn't looking. In fact, I decided I wasn't getting married because how do you go on set for three months and somebody is vexing? It wasn't really practical to expect that you would meet a guy who was understanding, and I didn't have the energy to fight, so I decided that I wasn't going to get married. When I met him, I was like, 'Lagos will chew this guy up and spit him out'. He had big dreams. He grew up in Owerri, so it wasn't like he was hardcore. So, my first instinct was that there was something to protect here. I felt like I should shield him and help him in the industry. It wasn't like I was a very powerful person in the system, but whatever I could do to help him get started.
Initially, people would ask, 'What has he done before?' So, after a while, we just had to do something. He had a script for O-Town, but I felt that it wasn't the time because it was too large. So, he wrote Ojuju; there I was reading the script, seeing normal people and things, and the next thing zombies came in. We didn't have any money, but I had garnered goodwill and relationships over the years, and that came in handy for us, so we did Ojuju. But nobody would touch it. What I wanted was for just one ad agency to just take it and give us money so I could pay the people that worked for us. Then when they ask, 'What has he done before?' We can refer to this but nobody wanted it but we got into the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) and then found our part. Somehow, we started talking about marriage. I don't even know how we got there, but we got there pretty quickly. After we knew we were getting married, it took a while to make the marriage thing happen. For me, it was when we couldn't finish Ojuju post-production, and we were living together then. So I was like, 'Shey, it's because we're living in sin that God doesn't want to help us finish the film? Let's just get married; what are we waiting for?' We decided to do it production style, so we didn't tell anybody beyond our immediate family. We put it on a weekday, freestyled, and got married. Things started happening after that, so maybe there was something to that.
Figuring out a name and style
C.J.: I studied computer science at the university, so even after graduating I had a regular job like everyone else, but I was just miserable. I felt like my life was slipping away without making movies. All my life, I wanted to make movies, but I never quite felt inspired by the films that I saw around me to ever do that. I thought I would become an author, so I started writing short stories, and that's actually how C.J., the initials, came about because I wanted to be part of the fellowship of authors like J.D. Salinger, C.S. Lewis, and HD Wells. I felt like those guys were special in a way, and I wanted to be part of that fellowship. So when I was a teenager, at 15 or 16, I started to initialise my name. I never became a published author, but the name stuck.
If you asked me this question five years ago, I wouldn't be able to answer, but I think my style, if I have one, is something that connects the viewer to a higher feeling or a higher power. Even if I'm making something, I want you to feel like there's something higher than you. This comes from what I felt in the cinema that I grew up watching, so I'm always trying to capture that. But what I found was that I never saw a Nigerian movie that did that for me, and so I felt like it was my job to figure out how I could do that as a Nigerian filmmaker. It's a long journey; I don't think I have perfected it, but I think it's a worthy cause to stay on, just to keep perfecting that. It did come together a lot with Mami Wata; it came together in a way that I never thought was possible with Mami Wata because I had to rethink everything I knew about filmmaking and African cinema.
Envisioning Mami Wata
C.J.: It was a vision. I call it a vision now because I wasn't sleeping; I was fully awake. I was outside. I think I just checked out for however long it was. To someone looking at me, it could have been one second, but it felt like a long time. In that vision, I saw who I believe to be the goddess Mami Wata standing in the ocean with long locks of hair down to her feet. It seemed like she was naked, but you couldn't tell because her hair covered every part of her body and she had dark skin. The entire thing is in black and white, even the clouds. My goodness, every time I describe this, I get goosebumps. It's become a thing now because I remember everything in vivid detail, from the clouds to the sound of the waves. Then there's this young woman, maybe 21 or 22, walking towards her. She passes by me as she walks towards the deity, and I come to at this point. This was in January 2016, and so the entire journey was from 2016 to 2020.
Bringing Mami Wata to life
C.J.: Between 2016 and 2018, I wrote maybe eight or nine drafts of the script. I didn't like any of them, but every time I showed it to someone, they would say, 'This is the best script ever'. I knew it wasn't the best script ever, but I had to figure out what was wrong with it. So that took me on another journey for two years. Oge did producer's workshops and all of that. I did several script-writing labs across Africa and Europe to eventually arrive at the script. By that time, I had done a lot of interrogation of the script and also of myself, which was even more important, and I was able to arrive at the script that I knew for sure was it. Things kind of happened even faster because all the while I was trying to develop and write the script that I liked, we were still trying to forget funding. A lot of it worked out until we had a script. It's not like it worked out completely, but at least the process to see it manifest into fruition just kicked off as soon as we had a script that was ready to go. By the time we premiere in January 2023, that would be seven years. It's crazy; the film started in January 2016 and is releasing in January 2023, and you know what they say about seven.
Oge: First of all, I was sold on the logline, the first one which he typed out on his phone. I read only the first draft because I had many details jumping around in my head. I was focused on trying to get funding, which was difficult. It was worse than Ojuju because it was black and white and it was Mami Wata. When we started, the way people responded was quite different from today. Someone said, "Holy Ghost fire!" There was a whole lot of that and vehement opposition even from filmmakers, which just made me dig in. While waiting for Mami Wata, we made Hello, Rain, and then the Surreal16 collective was born.
Eventually, when we went to the lab in Burkina Faso, it was a whole different energy because these were seasoned filmmakers from across Africa who had been in cinema. You know, we commercialise this art form so much that we take it for granted, but these are people who have given their lives for this art form, money or no money. They were pioneers of African cinema from Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast, and they were happy. It was a different reception, and they were so supportive throughout the period we were in Burkina Faso and beyond. Then we had to pitch the film at Durban FilmMart in South Africa, and even though South Africa is not West Africa in terms of sharing this culture, it was still the same thing. People kept coming afterwards, hugging and saying thank you. Nobody says thank you for making a film in Nigeria. It was all the validation that I needed, even though instinctively I knew we were on the right path, and then COVID-19 happened the very next year. I knew that if we didn't make the film then, time would pass, so all the preproduction happened virtually during the lockdown—the costume, putting the team together, and everything else.
Pushing through the rough times
Oge: It was hard. I feel like I pushed through the project with psychic energy because I didn't have resources, but we just kept going. It's really weird. There was a time we ran out of money on set; food was a problem, everything was a problem, and everybody was looking at me. I had to look like I was doing something, so I said I was going to the bank. I went there, and I just stood there. I didn't know what to do, but I knew that I couldn't go back. It was hot, so I walked into a bank, and those people were so efficient that there was no queue. They kept asking me if I had been attended to; eventually, the customer care guy asked me to come over and then asked how he could help me.
At first, I told him I came to take AC, then I started telling him the story of my life. He didn't speak good English, but I wasn't talking for him to understand me; I was just pouring out my heart. After a while, in between him attending to customers, he told me that his wife was outside on a bike that she would take me somewhere, and that I should take whatever I wanted and come back when I had money to pay. Then he gave me 60k Cefa in cash. I went with his wife to a shop where they sell foodstuff, and I was asked to take anything. I first took a cup of sugar, but nobody blinked. I asked for something else, and no one blinked. Then I said bag of rice, which they put aside. I grew bolder and asked for two bags, then oil, pineapples, and a basket of fruits. That shop had a dent by the time I was done. They called a tricycle, loaded it for me, then called a bike for me, and that's how we went back. When they saw me, everyone was happy, and it just seemed like some money had been injected into the production, and that kept people going. I'm grateful for things like that; they remind you that you know you're not alone. We had a lot of odd support.
After the shoot, we were back to zero funds, and then we won two grants that amounted to about $31,000 towards post-production. It wasn't the entire amount we spent, but at least we got started. We had a post-production team unexpectedly because, on a good day, we couldn't afford those guys. They were top guys in France, and all of them loved the project and made things easy for us, so there's all this flexibility around it, and here we are today. We shot in just the Benin Republic, but the cast and crew were from more than eight countries.
Making black and white appealing
C.J.: I got my DOP, Lílis Soares, who is Brazilian. By the time we started talking, we had spent the entire lockdown trying to craft a new way of seeing African bodies. I have said this over and over and over again, and I'll keep saying it: The thing about filmmaking is that it uses light and sound to communicate codes at 24 frames per second. So everything you watch influences you; it puts codes in your head, whether you admit it or not. So the reason why we see white people—Americans and British—in a certain light is because we've been programmed over the years by cinema to see them that way. We haven't done that for Africans, at least not in the specific way that they have. Even African filmmakers have this problem, so yes, we're telling our stories, but the codes we use are still very much Western-influenced, we still use the same codes. So if I'm telling an African story about some slum in Africa, it's not a bad thing; I don't have any problem with negative portrayal, but it's the empathy and the voice with which you tell that story that makes a difference. For example, you would have movies set in poverty-stricken areas in the United States, but there is a certain empathy with which they are told.
We don't do that. So when we are telling stories about our impoverished people, we look down on them, the camera looks down on them, and the lighting looks down on them. That's what I had to become conscious of, so when you watch Mami Wata, without giving anything away, everybody looks like gods, and that, for me, is really what it's about. It's interesting you bring up Barry Jenkins and that particular show, The Underground Railroad, because while he was in production, we were also in production for Mami Wata. The Underground Railroad came out before ours, but when it came out, I had a conversation with my DOP, and this was the same conversation leading up to Mami Wata. Now it is called 'The Gaze' because it's about how you look at dark bodies and dark skin and how you portray them cinematically. We didn't call it 'The Gaze' there, but what we said was that it was a specific perspective that needed to change, and that perspective starts with how you see yourself first, and then with that change, you can now figure out how to do that with the camera and with the light. It's a constant conversation. It's not like one knows; it's a constant conversation that you have to keep having with your cinematographer, and we had that conversation all through the entire shoot just to keep infusing those codes from scene to scene. It's a lot of work, but it was something that we felt needed to be done.
With this film, it had to be this particular camera; it had to be an Arri Alexa, and we had to shoot specifically on RAW, which is the footage that allows you to have more bandwidth in terms of what you can do post-production. It's more expensive because normally if you are supposed to have two hard drives for your movie, you end up having 10 just to store everything, but what that allowed us to do was that by the time we got to post-production in Paris, the post-production technicians, from the editor to the person doing the colour grading, had so much raw footage to work with. So that at the front end, when they render it, you just have something that looks better than if we had done otherwise, which was an upside.
Getting selected for Sundance
C.J.: I was doing post-production in France because the movie was selected early. It was the first film they selected, and this was as far back as April. They hadn't even opened the call for submissions when they selected it. One of their senior programmers, whom I had stayed in touch with since Durban FilmMart in 2019, would check in now and again. So when the movie was ready, I told her, and she said, 'As soon as you have a cut, it doesn't even have to be finished; just send it to me'. So we had a cut ready in February 2021, and I sent it to her. We got the email that we had been selected in April, which is a one-in-a-billion chance of happening. So, what they did was select very early on, and they had like a 12-man committee, so everyone agreed that they wanted the film in April. They didn't want to wait, and they didn't want us to submit to anyone else. We were going to finish post-production in July, and one of the top festivals in Europe was going to premiere the film in August, but I had already done that. In my mind, I wanted to go to Sundance. If you see my vision board, every year I write, 'I'm going to Sundance', and that is what happened.
Oge: I was in Cotonnu. He called me. It took a while for it to sink in because you are in Sundance, but you are still calculating how to pay the remaining people you owe. It was mentally and emotionally jarring. I had always known we would come to this point, whether at Sundance or Cannes, where we would launch to a global audience. It wasn't surprising; it was a relief that we had finally gotten there, and I mean, I was majorly happy for him. One thing I always promised anyone who worked with me was that I was very unlikely to pay you anything near the biggest salaries in the industry, but one thing I would not do is make you work on a project that you had to explain. So if you make a film with me and mention the name, people will know. I'll give you projects that will stand out on your CV.
Making traditional stories relevant to a global audience
C.J.: My way into any kind of story is cinema, and when I say cinema, I'm saying something very specific. Cinema in itself is a universal language; that's the reason why you can watch a Korean film, and whether or not you've been there, it touches you. You can watch a Chinese, Indian, or Brazilian movie because it is a universal language. As a student of cinema, my way into my kind of storytelling was always through cinema, so I never saw it as something that couldn't travel, even when we were making Ojuju. I always knew it would travel.
I'm not one of those filmmakers who says, 'I hate my work'. No, I love my work. I love everything I make because I put everything in it. It doesn't have to be perfect for me to love it. I know what I put into making it. I know that I put myself in there. I put my blood and everything in there, so whether you like it or not, I know I did what I wanted to do. Criticism doesn't move me. For me, my standard of success as a filmmaker is being able to look myself in the mirror, and for every single thing I've done, I've been able to do that. I've never done anything I didn't have to do; I've never had to compromise myself. I've never had to do any of those things. I recognise how much of a privilege it is to be able to do that and to even have a producer—forget that she's my wife—but to have a producer who can go to bat for you to ensure that dream and that vision is protected because that's what your producer is supposed to do for you whether you're married to them or not. For me, that has always been something I'm always grateful for. I have never had to soil myself in any way cinematically, and I'm happy about that.
Partnering with FilmOne
Oge: The first time I spoke to Moses Babatope about the film was during the Durban Film Festival. He saw people saying hi to me about the pitch, and he asked me what it was about. He noticed the interest, and we talked some more about it. Then, coming back to Lagos, I got a letter that they were interested in distributing. After the film was ready, we came to Lagos and informed him that it was in black and white, but he said that wasn't a problem. We told him about Sundance, and he said he knew it was going there; that was pretty much it. I think distribution has also had its challenges with audience expectations and all of that. I feel there's the Nigeria factor, and everybody is trying their best to keep their heads above water. I believe moving forward there will be bolder collaborations, especially as this is also opening a whole new market for us and them as well. It's breaking through that's the hardest part; once you've gone through, then the sky is your limit.
C.J.: I just want to say that I think it's a big statement for the industry that FilmOne is distributing the film. It could have been anyone, but FilmOne distributing is a big statement right now, and I think the industry needs that—not just filmmakers, the entire industry needs to have this sort of perception of where the industry is going next and the possibilities. Everyone knows what FilmOne stands for; everyone already understands and respects the brand, but for the brand to back a film that is very specific but has global appeal by being in Sundance says that the industry is ready to move to the next level, and for me, that's a big thing.
C.J.: There are a few of those. I have checked off one of them, which is to have my TV show. Even though I can't talk about that yet, but that is coming. It's going to be shot here locally, but with proper funding, it's on that level. That was a big box for me to check, especially walking with those particular people that I am working with. I've always wanted to work with A24; hopefully being at Sundance allows that. I guess the other one would be the Oscars, but we'll see. For now, I'm just focused on doing great work—the kind of work that is a new offering when people think of Nigerian film or TV. I don't want them to have a mindset about what that is. I don't want them to have a prior image of what that is because of what we can offer. We're able to offer diverse kinds of things; that's my dream. The show is horror, but I plan on doing some things apart from horror.
Since becoming the first homegrown Nollywood movie to make its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Mami Wata has won several awards globally, screened at reputable festivals and bagged many international distribution deals.
The movie is currently showing in Nigerian cinemas. It is also set to be released theatrically in the United States, UK, Switzerland, and at least 10 Francophone African countries before the end of the year.
Watch the trailer:
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