Just before the world went to hell in a handbasket and social distancing became the most important guiding principle to living, a Nigerian film premiered in the Forum section of the 70th Berlin International Film Festival.
Produced independently, with support from Lagos based GDN Studios, Eyimofe, directed by the duo of Arie and Chuko Esiri, is not your regular Nollywood fare. There are no big name stars headlining, the sets aren’t shiny Lagos mansions and there is an absence of exaggerated contortions which usually pass for emoting.
Matter of fact, to find kinship with the vision of the Esiris – twin brothers who both pursued postgraduate degrees in screenwriting and directing in the United States of America- one may have to look towards the tactile grit and innovative narrative techniques of Taiwanese new wave cinema, and of course the Italian neorealism movement that predated this. Put together so convincingly and dipped in a strong local flavor, it is no wonder that the Berlinale would be attracted.
Think of Eyimofe as an anti-immigration story.
From Ousmane Sembène’s iconic Black Girl (1966) to Mati Diop’s future classic, Atlantics (2019), there hasn’t been a paucity of films focusing on the immigrant struggle. Stories about disadvantaged people willing to do whatever it takes to migrate to the West, and the lives that they find thereafter have always been a thriving part of African cinema. The influence of co-productions with European film industries has been especially instrumental to this proliferation. But it is hard to recall any major film in recent memory that approaches this hot button issue quite the way that Eyimofe does.
The film is named after one of the leads but Eyimofe is really a double bill -. two separate stories about tangentially linked individuals who live in Lagos but dream of life across the ocean. Divided into two chapters, titled Spain and Italy, representing the countries where the central character in each story dreams of migrating to, Eyimofe uses this burning desire, expressed by the two leads – a middle aged electrician and a much younger bartender- as a crutch to detail the interiority of what it means to be born and raised in Lagos, commercial capital of an oil rich nation that has somehow managed to become the global capital of extreme poverty.
For Mofe – played by an excellent Jude Akuwudike and Rose played by Temi Ami-Williamsas well as for the audience, Europe remains frustratingly out of reach and tellingly, not a single scene of Eyimofe is shot outside Nigeria. What the film does instead is to outline with uncommon empathy- impressive for a first feature – the forces that drive these migratory patterns. The next time the statistics come up on the news; about numbers of lives lost at sea, or the surge in asylum seekers in some Western nation, consider that one, or more of these people could be Mofe or Rosa, simply looking to improve upon the unfortunate hand they were dealt purely by circumstances of birth.
Mofe lives with his sister and her kids in a tiny apartment. He works as an electrician in a company that has gotten so used to cutting corners, it wouldn’t think twice about putting the lives of staff at risk. Every naira Mofe makes is put towards securing a fake passport and eventually a visa that will help him make the journey to Spain. He even has a cozy Spanish name for extra effect. When it seems like his plan is coming together nicely, a tragic, yet avoidable incident occurs, a painful reminder of just how brutal, existing in Nigeria has come to be.
There will be viewers who will find the series of unfortunate incidents that occur in Eyimofe too much to deal with and indeed the film is unflinching about the ugly realities of the Nigerian system. But perhaps such people need only to look out of their windows, beyond their privileged existence to pick up on the obvious reality for millions of citizens. There is a lot of suffering in Eyimofe but none of it is merely gratuitous and the intent isn’t to gleefully hold up the system to ridicule in the way that Faraday Okoro’s Tribeca supported Nigerian Prince did a few years back.
The Esiris may not have lived through the struggles of their characters but they are wonderfully attuned to it, sensitive in ways that serve and preserve the humanity of the characters. The screenplay credited to Chuko Esiri, is wonderfully alive, observing the sights, the smell, and sound of the city of Lagos. Shot on 35mm film in multiple locations- a minor miracle- Eyimofe servesthe big moments grandly, but the film is strongest when detailing the myriads of small ways that people relate with Lagos. You don’t just watch Eyimofe, you are transported totally into a world that is all too familiar.
If the Esiris had restricted the narrative to just the first story, they would have had a perfect film on their hands. By the time the second story is unspooled however, the film begins to sag and loses some of the punch delivered by the controlled first half.
This is by no means the fault of the actors. Ami-Williams may be new to the big screen but hers is a compelling presence, one that quietly outlines the strengths and foibles of a troubled character. Her Rosa is a struggling bartender cum hairdresser who also has a younger sister in her care. She has been denied the privilege of being young and foolish, hence every life decision for her is an economically strategic one. She isn’t above engaging in transactional sex as a means to an end, the end being to get herself and her sister to Italy.
Rosa’s struggles are valid but it seems that the Esiri’s have their hearts and minds with Mofe. Not only does he get the epilogue, his story is also richer, simpler yet more complex and Akuwudike overcomes a British accent to convince totally as a lower-class Nigerian. A galaxy of popular faces- Toyin Oshinaike, Lala Akindoju, Chioma ‘Chigul’ Omeruah- circle the plot in supporting roles, each one bringing a unique flavor to character roles.
Chuko Esiri points to James Joyce’s Dubliners as his major inspiration while writing Eyimofe and indeed the film attempts to do for Lagos what Joyce’s book did for the Irish capital. The Esiris position Lagos as ground zero for their critiques on capitalism, sexism, insecurity and inequality, all of these themes, key drivers of the movement West. They are frustrated with the city but theirs is the kind of frustration borne out of love.
People define a city in ways that even the shiniest infrastructure is often incapable of and in Eyimofe, the Esiris have placed their loyalty with the people. The 17 million plus inhabitants who wake up every day looking for meaning among the chaos. Suffering, smiling and slowly dying. One day at a time.