“Eyimofe” (“This Is My Desire”), the debut feature from co-directors (and twin brothers) Arie and Chuko Esiri, is a heartrending and hopeful portrait of everyday human endurance in Nigeria, West Africa. The film traces the journeys of two distantly connected strangers at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder — Mofe (Jude Akuwudike), an electrician dealing with the fallout of a family tragedy, and Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams), a hairdresser supporting her pregnant teenage sister — as they each pursue their dream of starting a new life in Europe while bumping up against the harsh economic realities of a world in which every interaction is a transaction.
It’s a familiar tale — the longing for another life elsewhere, a promise that is at once near and far away, and it speaks to the European migrant crisis. It’s also a tale that was inspired by the filmmakers’ own journey. Shot in long takes, the pair was inspired by the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien and other films of New Taiwanese Cinema, as well as neorealist work like Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief,” for the immersion into their environments.
Shot on richly textured 16mm, the film is a vivid snapshot of life in contemporary, colorful, chaotic Lagos, the largest city in the country, whose social fabric is captured in all its vibrancy and complexity. Shooting on film is a luxury not many can afford. It’s especially rare in Nigeria. But the brothers had good reasons for doing so.
“In a romantic way, we wanted to insert the film in the catalog and annals of the great city films that had been shot on celluloid,” said Chuko in a recent interview with IndieWire. “We’ve seen Rome on film, we’ve seen Paris and London, but everything that we’d seen of Nigeria on film is archival footage, it’s ethnographic footage, it’s documentary. It’s not cinema, and cinema is a completely different beast.”
Documentary filmmakers might beg to differ, but the brothers are steadfast in their thinking. Still, the immortalization of the city on celluloid is a noble feat, especially when shooting in a country without any stable cinema infrastructure, a notoriously unreliable electrical grid, nightmarish traffic that would put LA’s 405 freeway congestion to shame, and bribery.
“Shooting on the streets of Lagos is notoriously difficult, because it’s a dense city and has what are called ‘area boys,’ or street guys,” Chuko said. “The idea of shutting down a street for a film production — I mean, if the president of the country can’t do that when he visits, then we weren’t going to be able to do it for our movie.”
Born 30 minutes apart in Warri, Nigeria, they grew up in Lagos, but at the age of eight, their parents shipped them off to boarding school in England to complete their formal education. At the time, there were no cinemas in Nigeria, so movies weren’t a part of their childhood. “At the time, the country was experiencing successive military regimes, and each regime had bright ideas about what was good for the culture, and these ideas were almost never good,” Chuko said. “So we didn’t grow up going to movies.”
While they did have television at home, constant power outages meant inconsistent viewing habits. And even when there was electricity, their mother — who wanted them to be academics — locked the cabinet where the television was kept. The brothers had to get creative. “I always say that part of our affinity for storytelling came out of having to spend so many hours entertaining ourselves,” Chuko said.
Their first real taste of cinema came when they moved to England for schooling. “I still have vivid memories of watching ‘The Lion King’, ‘Jurassic Park,’ and ‘Aladdin,’ which were baby steps toward forming a relationship with a dark room with a big screen and all that happens in there,” he said.
Twenty years later, they both enrolled in film schools: Arie graduated from Columbia University and Chuko from New York University. During their time in New York City, they collaborated on a pair of short films: “Goose,” presented at the LA Film Festival in 2017, and “Besida,” which premiered at the Berlinale in 2018.
They returned to Nigeria as adults and found a Lagos that has somehow felt foreign. “Eyimofe” was born out of that experience — the idea of leaving and returning much later to whatever “home” is.
Chuko wrote the script from his personal understanding of the social concerns of fellow countrymen who were leaving Nigeria for the West. It began as a one-page treatment that he submitted as part of his application to New York University’s graduate film program and became the thesis screenplay that won him a place on the prestigious Purple List, which recognizes the program’s best production-ready scripts.
“It came from my returning to Nigeria for my stint in the National Youth Service,” he said. “From the age of eight to 22, I had only spent time in Nigeria on holiday, so now I was spending substantial time in a place to which I belonged but where I was also something of an alien — until then I hadn’t really faced all that it meant to be in Nigeria. I wanted to return to where it felt more familiar and where I would feel more comfortable in a national film industry. Even though Nigeria has a robust industry, Nollywood is a massive machine but I didn’t want to make the kind of films people make in it.”
While the Esiri brothers spent much of their lives overseas, “Eyimofe” was financed entirely in Nigeria and made with a predominantly Nigerian cast and crew. The film is now drawing a new level of international attention to Nigerian cinema and screening at several festivals, including Berlin and New Directors/New Films. However, as Nigerian movies get more notice outside the country, it’s also raising the issue of exactly what a “Nigerian film” is supposed to be.
“Growing up between Nigeria and England and having this strange relationship with Nigeria, being intimate with all of our native country’s flaws and beauties — it’s a complicated country, and artists who grow up in complicated countries want to have a dialogue with them in their work,” Chuko said. “Experiencing firsthand the difference between a country under democracy and a country under military dictatorship, when we saw our first neorealist films we realized that you can tell stories about less than ideal societies, and say something about them and their people.”
Janus Films will release “Eyimofe” in theaters on Friday, July 23. Check out the film’s first trailer and poster, available exclusively on IndieWire, below.