This article appeared in the March 23, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here

Mami Wata (C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, 2023)

Three critics recommend standouts from this year’s First Look festival, an annual showcase for adventurous new cinema at the Museum of Moving Image in New York City. The 2023 edition wrapped up on March 19.

Nigerian filmmaker C.J. “Fiery” Obasi was once told that it was a bad idea to film Black actors in the nighttime, because cameras might not discern dark-skinned figures against dark backgrounds. And yet, for his new feature, Mami Wata, Obasi and his cinematographer, Lílis Soares, filmed their actors “throughout the night,” the director said at this year’s First Look, which marked the film’s New York premiere.

Set in the village of Iyi, where the matriarch, Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), acts as an intermediary between a water spirit—the eponymous Mami Wata—and the villagers, Obasi’s latest is the best-lit film I have seen in a long time. Obasi and Soares employ stylized, stagelike lighting to illuminate the contours of faces and bodies, while dissolving other details in a high-contrast darkness, creating textures that make you want to reach out and touch the screen. The result is a black-and-white West African folk tale in which the actors, painted with iridescent white patterns, glow against a backdrop of ocean and forest.

Much like Saint Helena Island in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Iyi is poised on the cusp between tradition and modernity. Mama Efe’s charms are losing their effectiveness as the people around her begin to demand modern amenities—vaccines, electricity, formal schools. Rebels and outsiders rise against the waning idyll of Iyi, threatening to upend an ancient world order. As in Dash’s film, it is up to the village’s generations of women, buoyed by the blessings of the water spirit, to fight for a new future that welcomes the benefits of modernity yet resists the violent annihilation of their magic and their songs. A resplendent spectacle, Mami Wata reminds us of the wonders one can create with darkness, if only one knows how to play with the light.

Bedatri Datta Choudhury is a journalist and film programmer based in New York City.