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“Water & Garri” Review: Meji Alabi’s Directorial Debut Feature Offers Scintillating Visuals But Doubtful Storytelling

“Water & Garri” Review: Meji Alabi’s Directorial Debut Feature Offers Scintillating Visuals But Doubtful Storytelling

Water & Garri provides evidence for the wide range of imaginative talent inherent in Nigeria’s creative industries, yet proves all the same, that storytelling-wise, moving at a glacial pace is no guarantee to hit one’s target.

By Victory Hayzard Solum

When tragedy strikes her family a second time, Aisha (Tiwa Savage) makes a long-awaited return from the US back to Eastside, the city of her childhood, and from which she fled after the death of her brother, Mide (Mike Afolarin). While showing up for Stephany (Jemima Osunde), her grieving cousin, Aisha reconnects with Kay (Andrew Yaw Bunting), the local Kingpin and her erstwhile heartthrob, and must come to terms with the traumas of her past for the first time, in Meji Alabi‘s 2024 drama film, Water & Garri.

The first thing one notices going into the movie is that the director is keen on his visuals. Coming from a background in the music video industry where images must be made to capture the mood or message embedded in the beat or lyrics of a song, Alabi is on strong footing with cinematography. He joins the list of directors who have transitioned from music to cinema, the rank and file of which includes David Fincher, Antoine Fuqua, Clarence Peters, and Kemi Adetiba.

By the magic of location scouting and thoughtful shot composition, Alabi creates a film that proves him a devotee of the principle, “every frame, a painting”. In Water & Garri, one finds a film cordial with the pause button and sure to satisfy the cravings of many a wallpaper hunter. But that said about the visuals, how firmly does the story hold?

"Water & Garri" Review: Meji Alabi's Directorial Debut Feature Offers Scintillating Visuals But Doubtful Storytelling | Afrocritik

There are twists to be had in stories of this kind, of course. But Alabi in his feature film directorial debut leaves them far off for a moment, opting instead for a chill and sedate tone befitting of his acting lead and fellow first-timer, Savage. The sense one gets in Water & Garri is of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s 2002 Brazilian crime epic, City of God, dialled down several notches and cut with the 2019 Donald Glover feature, Guava Island, as directed by Hiro Murai. With its fabulistic sensibilities, short runtime, and fictional locale, Water & Garri certainly has more in common with that last film. Matter of fact, its opening scene might be considered a sped-up rendition of Guava Island’s climax in an example of inspiration done right.

The actors are all gorgeous in this film, each of them very much at home in front of the camera, despite their varying levels of experience. Playing a mild-mannered lead in a slow-paced film can be tricky, but Savage never falters in what the scripting demands of her. Some delicateness is required to balance the twin roles of romantic lead and street-level toughs that are true-to-life, and that’s a line Bunting straddles with reasonable comfort.

Water & Garri Review: Meji Alabi's Directorial Debut Feature Offers Scintillating Visuals But Doubtful Storytelling | Afrocritik
Andrew Yaw Bunting and Tiwa Savage in Water & Garri

There are amazing locations to be captured in Cape Coast, Ghana, for the film’s principal photography, and there are odd visual flexes peppered throughout in the expansion of the director’s cinematic language. True to its origins as an extended music video for Savage’s EP of the same name, Alabi takes sexual metaphor and insinuations to new heights, with sequences straight out of RnB music videos of the ’90s and early 2000s. One scene involving a police officer at a checkpoint might be one of the most menacing scenes out of Nollywood this year thus far; quite telling about the calibre of the imagination on board and its mastery of tension. The director chases sidebar delights of these kinds while letting the story unfurl and discover itself. And yet, there might not be much to that story, with parts that don’t fit, parts that stick out in the margins, and parts that have been forgotten altogether.

Aisha’s return to Eastside is occasioned by Stephany’s call about her own brother’s death. But once Aisha arrives, this bereavement is pretty much forgotten. Save for one scene of conversation, Stephany puts up displays of strength alternating between matchmaking and showing up cheerfully at parties that one is forced to wonder how long has passed since the phone call, and what exactly necessitates Aisha’s full-scale return home.

Coming from a family which has lost two young men to violence on the streets, Aisha displays too few of the fears and anxieties attending encounters with the denizens of that lifestyle. The storytellers opt instead for an ignorance that is unjustified, with other characters having to tell Aisha how things have changed.

Was having a Grandma really necessary? Once she dies, Mide and Aisha pretty much raise themselves, which, considering the older woman’s short screen time, would have just been the same as their having been orphans. Grandma exists solely to give the film’s title a meaning with a lesson about water and garri delivered with so much heavy-handedness it’s a wonder the little girl doesn’t choke to death mulling on her life nuggets.

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 A loss of her grandma, a loss of her brother, and a loss of her cousin. At some point, all of Aisha’s losses start to feel frivolous, as only one has any real impact on the story. Is this really a story about finding one’s way through grief towards accepting the good? Then where are the debilitating effects of said grief from which a struggle should occur? Why are Aisha’s biggest struggles about the possibility of a chance at romance? Why is her big and final lesson the willingness to stay in a place which has taken and continues to take so much from her? And how are we to appreciate this decision when her home has been redecorated towards permanence from the earliest scenes?

Boasting some cool and gorgeous photography, as well as actors who give their all in as sedate a tone as the film assumes, Water & Garri provides evidence for the wide range of imaginative talent inherent in Nigeria’s creative industries, yet proves all the same, that storytelling-wise, moving at a glacial pace is no guarantee of hitting one’s target.

Rating: 2.7/5

(Water & Garri is currently streaming on Prime)

Victory Hayzard Solum is a freelance writer with an irrepressible passion for the cinematic arts. Here he explores the sights, sounds, and magic of the shadow-making medium and their enrichment of the human experience. A longstanding ghostwriter, he may have authored the last bestselling novel you read.

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