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Sundance 2023: Slow, Girl, Mami Wata

Three films found in this year’s World Dramatic Competition find themselves examining interpersonal relationships through very distinct means. In Marija Kavtaradze's Lithuanian romance "Slow" two lovers strive to meet each other’s needs. In Adura Onashile’s “Girl” the closeness of an immigrant mother and daughter living in Scotland is threatened by unprocessed trauma. Lastly, in “Mami Wata” Nigerian director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi uses the structure of fables to explore the tension between modernity and tradition. 

Awash in Laurynas Bareiša's gorgeous, warm cinematography, Marija Kavtaradze's deeply felt romance "Slow" unfolds like the memory of a faded romance, where even the worst fights are perpetually wrapped in hopeful rays of sunlight. But even that false sunshine can't hide the bittersweet undercurrent of regret that tends to linger in these kinds of memories. 

Intensely passionate contemporary dancer Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) uses her body to express her emotions and internalized trauma on the dance floor, but also in her interpersonal relationships. She gets off from the charge of electricity shared by two people in the middle of a heavy flirtation. The more ruminative interpreter Dovyda (Kęstutis Cicėnas) on the other hand expresses himself through conversation and small, thoughtful gestures. Yet, the two fall for each other almost instantaneously. The immediate, intimate chemistry between Grinevičiūtė and Cicėnas, and Kavtaradze's careful use of close-ups, reminds us what it looks like when two perfectly matched stars ignite cinematic magic.

Despite their connection, which Elena describes as feeling like they've known each other forever, is overwhelming. But after Dovyda tells her he is asexual, she has trouble at first understanding what he could even get from a relationship with her. She is so used to connecting with men only on a sexual level, a relationship mostly built on an intellectual, almost mystical connection leaves her bewildered. 

Kavtaradze’s sharp script finds parallels between this indefinable connection with that of a high school friend of Elena's who has dedicated her life to God and lives in a monastery. As Elena attempts to understand her connection with Dovyda she looks to her friend's situation for help. Wisely, there are no easy answers to be found in the situation of another. Elena and Dovyda must decide if their love for each other can really conquer all, or if they must find someone who can match their physical and emotional needs. 

"Slow" announces Kavtaradze as a director with keen insight into human psychology and a true knack for working with actors, while the precision and emotional heft of what Grinevičiūtė and Cicėnas bring to their characters should not be overlooked when discussing the year's great performances. 

The same cannot be said for “Girl,” the compassionate, yet poorly executed debut feature from writer-director Adura Onashile. Her background is in theater and the lack of cinematic experience shows through Onashile's disjointed, frustratingly opaque script, odd staging and camera framing, the film’s missing a sense of place, and editing choices that undercut her actors’ performances and muddle the story at its heart. 

Déborah Lukumuena, broke out almost a decade in the French drama "Divines," for which she became the first Black and youngest ever winner of César Award for Best Supporting Actress, stars as Grace, an immigrant from an unnamed African country, living in Glasgow with her daughter Ama (Le'Shantey Bonsu). The duo are inseparable, sharing everything from a bed to a bathtub. 

Grace has told Ama a falsehood about her origins in the form of a fable, saying as a young girl living alone with her grandmother she went to a well and wished for someone who would always be her friend.  Thus arrived Ama. But as the girl heads into puberty and makes a new friend (Liana Turner) at school, flashbacks slowly reveal the real story. As Grace's paranoia increases and she keeps Ama away from school, she risks authorities intervening and pushing Ama away for good. 

Unfortunately, Onashile’s script sticks to these very broad strokes. There is no attention to detail in Grace's story from her past or in the neighborhood in which they currently live. Stock characters are introduced but never developed. Cinematographer Tasha Back shoots using a very wide frame, yet Onashile fills it with so little visual information that it's never very clear where characters are in relation to their surroundings. 

Lukumuena has an undeniably strong screen presence and crafts a bittersweet chemistry with newcomer Bonsu, which makes it all the more disappointing to see the two trapped in a film whose style totally consumes any substance they attempt to bring to their characters. 

By contrast, writer-director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s "Mami Wata" use of a very specific mode of storytelling helps its themes come into sharper focus. Like last year's Grand Jury Prize winning film "Nanny," Obasi’s film involves the titular African water spirit. The film opens with a title card that reads "assumptions about Mami Wata exist throughout the diaspora -- few exist in the isolated village of Iyi. . .until now." What unfolds is a fable that grapples with the tension between modernity and tradition, the allure and poison of capitalism, and the inherent strength of matriarchal societies. 

When a young boy dies of a virus, the village begins to question the power of intermediary Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) and the very existence of Mami Wata, as does her daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) who cannot understand her mother’s resistance to modern medicine. When a mysterious man named Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) washes ashore, he beguiles Mama Efe's protégé Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen, in what should be a breakout role), who invites him to think of this land as his own. Slowly, however, his real intentions and character are revealed and the women must work together to bring peace and balance back to their people. 

Using monochromatic black-and-white cinematography and a stirring soundscape of ocean waves and rhythmic dance music, Obasi creates a world unstuck in time. Iyi is not quite in could be the past, the present, or the future, even while Zinwe and Prisca invite progress in the form of doctors and Jasper brings with him the violence of capitalism. Above it all remains the (mostly) unseen presence of Mami Wata, whose mystical ways are felt not just through unexplainable phenomena, but also through the actions of those guided by her. 

Through the use of a fable structure, Obasi deftly weaves heavy political, philosophical, and theological ideas together with his keen eye for striking imagery to craft a film that feels both classical and futuristic. Mami Wata's guidance may be specifically for the people of Iyi, but we can all learn from her wisdom. 

 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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