Two complete strangers trying to scrape by in the sprawling metropolis of Lagos are at the heart of Eyimofe (This is My Desire), a promising, quietly moving first feature from the directing duo of Arie and Chuko Esiri.
With hints of Ozu, Claire Denis and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, this carefully observed and well-performed drama is a far cry from the typical fodder churned out by the Esiri brothers’ native Nollywood film industry, offering up an indie alternative that’s small in stature but large in scope, especially in its scathing critique of exploitation within Africa’s largest city. Niche distributors and festival programmers should take note of a work that announces the arrival of two sincere new talents.
Lagos, I love you but you’re bringing me down.
Shot on warm and grainy 16mm by Arseni Khachaturan (who lensed the recent and noteworthy Georgian debut Beginning), Eyimofe captures a multi-layered panorama of Lagosian life — from the tiny dwellings of its two protagonists struggling to make ends meet at the bottom, to the larger domains of landlords and mob bosses, to the high-end bars and luxury hotels where businessmen and expats live like minor kings.
Navigating all the social strata are Mofe (Jude Akuwudike), a 40-something electrical engineer employed by a local printing press, and Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams), a 20-something part-time hairdresser and bartender taking care of her pregnant younger sister, Grace (Cynthia Ebijie). The two are part of the same working underclass and live in the same poor neighborhood, and yet they only manage to share the screen on one occasion.
Beyond their parallel struggles, what the two also have in common is their desire to emigrate from Nigeria toward a better life abroad, and the script (written by Chuko Esiri, who co-directed with his brother Arie) is divided into two halves, each denoted by the country the characters are hoping to escape to: Spain for Mofe, Italy for Rosa.
Mofe’s tale starts off ordinarily enough, as we follow him trying to deal with his factory’s defective electrical grid, then hanging out at home with his sister and her two kids. But things suddenly take a devastating turn when he comes back after a night moonlighting as a security guard — like Rosa, Mofe has to work several jobs to make ends meet — to find his family asphyxiated by a faulty generator in his apartment.
The tragic irony of their deaths is not lost on Arie & Chuko, who spend much of the film’s first half showing Mofe toiling under the weight of Nigeria’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy, first when he tries to bury his kin, then when he attempts to recover some of their estate. From one negotiation to the next, including a run-in with his estranged father in the countryside, Mofe’s efforts are constantly thwarted by a dog-eat-dog system where somebody’s always taking advantage of somebody else, usually by order of social hierarchy.
The same thing goes for Rosa, who, in order to pay the rent, not to mention her sister’s medical bills, is in a sugar-daddy relationship with her landlord (Toyin Oshinaike) while negotiating with a female kingpin (Chioma ‘Chigul’ Omeruah) to finance their passage abroad. (Remember, she also holds down two jobs.) When Rosa meets Peter (Jacob Alexander), an American in town for work, whatever romantic sparks fly between them are eventually put out by an impenetrable class barrier that always leaves Rosa wanting for more, obliging her to play a role she’d rather avoid.
As downtrodden as the world depicted in Eyimofe may seem, the Esiri bros avoid any sort of heavy-handed messaging by giving their characters and stories a sober, naturalistic flair. Sequences are often shot from a slight distance, through doorways or windows, with the actors isolated against an assortment of urban backdrops: makeshift storefronts, outdoor markets, offices packed with old dossiers, a guy laminating fake passports on the street or a junction box teeming with wires that are about to short circuit.
Many key scenes are handled in long takes, allowing the performers ample breathing room as the sights and sounds of Lagos accompany the human dramas that we witness. The directors have a particular knack for coaxing sharp, realistic turns from their cast, with emotions suddenly welling up out of nowhere. It’s as if they’re capturing life as usual, yet digging far enough under the surface to uncover some of the harsh realities lying beneath.
The pacing can be a bit sluggish at times, and yet there’s nothing that really feels out of place in the Esiris’ take on Nigeria’s burgeoning urban center, which is viewed from a deeply critical angle that’s also far from pessimistic. Indeed, Eyimofe ultimately plays like a love-hate letter to a great and flawed city, from two talented young filmmakers who hopefully still have much to tell us.
Production companies: GDN Studios
Venues: AFI Fest (New Auteurs); previously Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Cast: Jude Akuwudike, Temi Ami-Williams, Cynthia Ebijie, Jacob Alexander, Toyin Oshinaike, Tomiwa Edun, Chioma ‘Chigul’ Omeruah
Directors: Arie & Chuko
Screenwriter: Chuko Esiri
Producers: Arie Esiri, Chuko Esiri, Melissa O. Adeyemo
Executive producers: Maiden Alex Ibru, Toke Alex Ibru, Salman Zoueihed, Kaoyde Akindele, Albert Esiri, Ifeoma Esiri, Olorogun Oskar Ibru, Christopher Ibru
Director of photography: Arseni Khachaturan
Production designer: Taisa Malouf
Costume designer: Daniel Obasi
Editor: Andrew Stephen Lee
Composer: Akin Adebowale
Casting director: Kemi Lala Akindoju