“Lagos na wa!”
Anyone who has ever lived in Lagos has uttered this phrase at one point or other. Loosely translated from Pidgin English as “Lagos is overwhelming”, the phrase attempts to capture the permanent state of exaggeration that is the daily grind of living in West Africa’s most important city. Frustrating, exciting, confusing, every random encounter takes on a life of its own. Living in Lagos can be an extreme sport. Leaving Lagos can be just as traumatic.
The characters in Eyimofe (This is my Desire), the debut feature length drama by twin Nigerian filmmakers Arie and Chuko Esiri, discover this firsthand. Eyimofe, which received its world premiere at the Berlinale in the Forum section, is shot on 35mm film, giving the picture a gritty finish that clearly delineates the oft’ unacknowledged labor that keeps many Lagos dreams afloat.
Structurally, Eyimofe pays homage to diptychs such as Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), both directed by Wong Kar-wai. In two separate acts that are only tangentially linked, Eyimofe, written by Chuko, is a refreshing if sobering counterpoint to the immigration stories that have long fascinated filmmakers from Ousmane Sembène to Mati Diop.
The film’s two chapters are titled “Spain” and “Italy”, named for the country where the protagonist in each story dreams of migrating to. Eyimofe places this burning desire, expressed by two characters: Mofe, (an excellent Jude Akuwudike), a middle aged electrician, and Rosa, (Temi Ami-Williams, quietly effective), a younger bartender and hairdresser, as a crutch to detail the interiority of what it means to survive in the stifling conditions that are a reality for so many Lagosians.
Europe looms large even though not a single frame of Eyimofe is shot outside Nigeria. Mofe and Rosa have made up their minds that a better life awaits them on the other side of the Mediterranean and they go about hustling to make these dreams a reality. But people have plans, and Lagos? It has plans too. The Esiris wield their microscope to examine, via their characters’ circumstances, the oppressive factors that drive people to consider leaving home and migrating west via perilous journeys designed to rob them of what is left of their humanity. Eyimofe doesn’t exist to cast blame even though it is very much obvious where the sympathies of the filmmakers lie.
Often harrowing but always empathetic Eyimofe digs deep to unearth a city that alternates between beauty and filth and considers the ways in which it relates to the human beings that give it its character. On a racy day in Berlin, just before the world was upended by COVID-19, Arie (AE) and Chuko (CE) Esiri, 35, both graduates of screenwriting and directing from schools in New York, sat down to talk about their city, their influences and the processes that power their work.
It is a long way from Lagos to the Berlinale. How did this film make the journey?
CE: It is about the same journey every independent filmmaker makes. You write the best script that you can. Put as much thought in it as you can. You find backers that are willing to take a risk because you are not making something that is inherently commercial. And then try to execute to the best of your ability and hope that what you have made is interesting enough for places like Berlin.
AE: But you never start with the goal of being at the Berlinale or any other festival. It is a case of speaking to whatever subject matter you are tackling in a very truthful way and making the best film possible. The beginning for us was about what we wanted to say and not where we wanted to go.
But somewhere at the back of your mind, you must want to play at the highest levels, yes?
CE: I mean yeah. Anyone in the creative fields that tells you that validation isn’t important is lying. It is a personal thing to make art, even more personal to share it with complete strangers. So we all want that validation that says okay, the work I created touched someone somewhere. So whether it is Berlin or New York or Venice, they are all icing on the cake. While setting out to make the best piece of work that you can, other things tend to fall into place.
AE: I think its more about getting the platform to get it out to a wider audience. Validation is a little tricky, a hard word to grapple with…
CE: Validation to me means that there is some point to what you’ve done. People have made films that don’t get into even the smaller film festivals not even in the tier of Berlin, and if you find yourself in that situation, that’s a massive blow.
But you keep going anyway.
CE: Some people it actually turns them away and they won’t do it anymore. One of my film school professors, it was 10 years between making his first film and his next because he was so disappointed with the reception of the first that he stepped away for 10 years. He worked as a video technician until he had recovered from the trauma of making something that nobody was interested in. He came back though and is now one of the leading lights of American independent cinema.
When there are two directors, I am always curious about the working process. In a discussion last night, someone wondered if you split the two stories and each of you directed one half. How do you work together as professionals and as twin brothers?
AE: That is funny. We have a good relationship. For this film, because of time constraints and the speed at which things were happening, we had to be in two places at once a lot of the time. A lot of the visual responsibilities were left to me while Chuko spent a lot of time with the actors, conducting the rehearsals. At the end of the day, we would meet and share the things we came up with. He would share his clips from the rehearsals, I would share my notes with the cinematographers. But going into that we had already decided on a common language, film references we shared and how we wanted to execute. Chuko would meet with the actors and try to get them into the world. He would take the lead, Jude (Akuwudike), to Obalende to try to meet up with the mechanics and electricians in that area there while I was back with the cinematographer talking language and lenses and movement. Chuko had set the language and tone for the film in the writing so that made things easier going in. There was just a way that the film was demanding to be made that allowed us to be in our various sections with some degree of independence and confidence.
So Chuko is more literary minded while Arie is the visual wunderkind. Chuko, James Joyce’s Dubliners was a big influence on this project. In what ways did the book speak to you and what other stuff were you reading?
CE: Dubliners is the first book I read during the writing process that I was like: hey this is what I am trying to do. I read it once every year and I think it is a perfect collection of short stories. Joyce’s writing is remarkable and he does a wonderful job of understanding people. I haven’t been to Dublin but having met Irish people outside, I see the pieces of the lives I met in the novel. James Joyce moved away from Ireland cos he felt it was limiting for him and the book was written as a reaction to that. It was for me, the idea of presenting a place and the people with all the good and the bad parts. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House was another but that was mostly because of structure. The way that he gives each location distinctive characteristics and the way that the locations feed into his overall narrative is amazing. The factory in the film is very much a microcosm of the country, with Mofe trying his best within the “manage it” culture that we have perfected in Nigeria. He goes to the higher up asking for help because he can’t manage it anymore but the higher ups do not fulfill their duty and we see the result of that. In Bleak House there are like three or four key locations with all the characters navigating these locations and how these locations affect the characters. They were the two main literary references for me. Other books I read while working on Eyimofe were C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed which was written after the passing of his wife. Lewis has such beautiful thoughts on death and how it affects people. In the book he talks about how it isn’t really the not seeing someone again that gets to you but hearing their voice in your head when something random happens. It is those small moments of absences that get to you and I lifted that directly and worked it into the film. Also Silas Marner by George Eliott. She does a wonderful job of dealing with money and how money is so pervasive in the society. But it is not big sums of money, it is death by a thousand cuts. The book is about a man that is saving up money and his reaction to losing that money.
Arie I am going to ask about your visual influences for the film.
AE: There are a few of them but if I had to hone it down to one specific sort of space it would be new Taiwanese cinema. I introduced Chuko to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work a couple of years ago and he was delighted to find he loved it. This led him to Edward Yang and some of the other directors in that movement. For me it is the manner in which they are able to bring you into their culture and into their spaces in such a naturalistic way that you feel as if you’ve known the people forever. And then the way they shoot Taipei as a stage. For me Taipei is probably the one city I have developed such a fascination for through cinema and we both spent a lot of time thinking about how we could do the same thing for Lagos. Those were really our guiding lights as far as visual references were concerned but I’d say we pulled from various other people. Films like Chungking Express, Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy and The Big City because of its timelessness and the manner in which it was made. These films said to me that we have the same problems regardless of time and place. Our humanity is shared and it is a cycle. Understanding that was very important to us.
I always say that in Nigeria every filmmaker is pretty much independent but some more than others. What is the nature of the struggle for you, operating independently and then making the kind of film that isn’t entrenched in the mainstream?
CE: The struggle for me is funding which is only the symptom, the disease being, does anybody want to watch this? You mentioned that everyone in Nigeria is independent and I quite agree because there is no studio system, neither is there a grant or subsidies funding system. But at least if I am making a commercial film, I know people will come to watch it because I have this star in it and it is about this trend or that genre. For filmmakers like us, we don’t have that guarantee so it is always a probability. You think people might watch. And that leads to someone asking why they should put their money in this if it is not coming back to them. The challenge is that the work we are making inherently is not commercial and the world doesn’t always see this as something that has a place.
What is the hardest part of the process for you?
AE: The hardest thing for us was having to make this kind of film in Lagos. We talked a lot about the lack of infrastructure and how difficult it was to navigate with the size of crew that we had. And we needed a large crew to deliver.
AE: Anywhere between 70 and 100 and I don’t think that is necessarily crazy for an independent film but in Nigeria it is a lot. Coordinating all those people in the over 40 locations that we shot in sometimes, getting them on time to get the shots the way we would have wanted. We hit every local government in Lagos. It was a lot of movement. We were having to make decisions on how to light scenes with the least amount of equipment because some of the spaces were really small. We couldn’t just put the light outside when some of the spaces got too dark to amp up the spaces like in Mofe’s apartment in Mushin. I recall that that was one of the things we wanted to do but when we got there it was just impossible. Everything was just so close and small and tight. We had to bring in small mobile battery powered lights to fit into these spaces. And we had the added complication of shooting on film so we had to have enough light to expose the film and have it strong enough to put in the right spaces where we couldn’t fit in physically.
CE: A lot of our equipment was old. It is hard to find some of the parts of equipment that are being used to film in New York or LA now. For obvious reasons. If I were running a lighting studio in Lagos, I wouldn’t invest in them because the people aren’t using them
At the premiere when the cast and crew came out, it was interesting how diverse the team was. People from several parts of the world. What was it like marshalling this team, getting them to Lagos and having them realise your vision?
CE: Everyone got to read the script and they liked it. Just like anything else, people want to work on projects that excite or stimulate them. My production designer came by way of reference. We were speaking with another person and she got a bigger gig because people have to pay bills and this job isn’t going to do that in any serious way. She recommended someone else, Taisa Malouf, a Brazilian who happened to be on my shortlist and I sent her the script. She read it and was like “I have to do this” and brought her team on.
AE: I had seen our cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan’s work through a friend of mine. We were colleagues from film school and I always felt like he would be right for the project. He was in a stage in his career where he felt it would be good to take a chance and come to shoot in a part of the world that he’d never been to. I think that was a part of the appeal for the crew we pulled from different parts of the world. To experience Lagos, see somewhere new and getting the opportunity to tell a story in a place you don’t see enough on the big screen, especially on the international stage.
Logistics wise, was it a nightmare getting everyone together?
AE: Not so much. I think once everyone got their visas it was okay. We were lucky to have GDN studios backing the film and that came with great infrastructure in terms of the relationships they had with hotels in Lagos. So we were able to house the crew in one place and have that not hit our budget too hard, which is great.
CE: That was the easy part to be honest. When we were doing our pre-production, what became clear was that in terms of logistics, moving from one location to another would be a challenge. We had to get company movers. Kudos to our first AD Monica because at the end of the day it came down to proper scheduling. If we were to be in Mushin from say Monday to Thursday, we had to shoot everything that we could at once and often non-chronologically. Mondays were off days so that we could shoot on weekends. Sundays were best for moving around and even then, not great distances. Our largest company move was from Lekki to Ikoyi and we did that on a Sunday afternoon. The scheduling was a lot of racking one’s brain. Also the lead actor Jude was only available for a limited period because he had to go back to do a play in the UK. Initially we wanted to shoot the village scenes in Abraka, Delta state, which is our country home but it didn’t make any sense practically so even when we were shooting, on one of our days off, I drove around the Ajah region alongside Ade Sultan our co-producer, looking for rural settings. Then of course when you find one you had to enter the community, deal with the Baale (traditional leader) and area boys and that sort of thing so movement limitations were not what it would have been in cities like London or Paris or New York.
Both of you went to film school and you had made shorts prior to shooting Eyimofe. How did that experience prepare you for the real deal?
CE: I had done some shooting in Nigeria. My second year short film project was done in Abraka, my hometown, and that was done on film. It prepared me in the sense that we had done it, shooting on film that is and it was possible. So that gives you confidence for when someone wants to discourage you from shooting on film in Lagos. It helps when you have done it even deeper in the country in the past. And that comes from having the curiosity and confidence to try new things. School is where you get to discover who you are and what kind of voice you want to have. I made some terrible stuff in school because it is a safe space to try out things and materials are available at little or no cost. A short film we made in my last year in school, the budget was $700 and half of it went to renting the boxing gym we shot in. If I tried to make that same film outside of film school, it would cost about $6000.
AE: Film school did prepare me for this feature and I feel very fortunate to have been able to spend five years of my life doing what I love. I made Eyimofe in my fourth year of film school. But having that time to think about how I wanted to approach my practice and having this incredible network of filmmakers and collaborators on hand was invaluable. My onset editor Fernanda Frotte is a very close friend of mine and a wonderful writer and having someone like her on set to help us think about how we were shaping our edits or building our visual language was great. As far as shooting in Nigeria is concerned, I produced B for Boy, a feature directed by Chika Anadu, who is a wonderful writer-director in 2012, before I went to film school. So having that experience was a practical sort of film school. Just before we did this, I shot on film so the practice of getting the film out, transferring it to the lab and seeing dailies, that was a system we had test run before we did Eyimofe.
Why do you insist on working on film? Must be hard work.
AE: I had been working exclusively on film for about a year and a half before we shot Eyimofe so I had developed a practice. I love the discipline it enforces on set. That is wonderful to have. It makes everyone way more attentive because there is literally a limited amount of film we can use so it just means more rehearsals and being prepared. With digital it is pretty much infinite. But obviously the look of the film is an essential part of why we did it. Film just has remarkable character and brings out detail that I think digital is yet to match. Without getting techy, the dynamic range that you can get shooting in a place like Nigeria is important. I can shoot midday and have everyone that is on the ground fully exposed but still have details in the sky and it just enriches the image and makes it feel real. That also helps with darker skin tones and being able to light say Chuko’s complexion or mine. Or take Jacob Alexander who is white and plays Peter in the film and contrasting him with Temiloluwa who plays Rosa. They have different complexions but film handles these dynamic images very well.
CE: Also for the filmmaker you have to be responsible so if you are trying something it needs to be thought through. And that feeds into consistency. There is a marked difference between a set that is film and one that is digital. Also for us on a philosophical level we grew up watching films the world over and there is a gap in Nigeria for films that have a timeless quality. We wanted to create this piece where watching it 40 or 50 years from now, it feels part of a timeless history. That’s a romantic idea I guess.
The casting was a mix of famous Nigerian actors and not-so-familiar ones. For the two leads in particular it was interesting that you would go for unknowns. How do you breathe into life characters you lived with on the page?
CE: A film set is a small village and we always knew we wanted new faces, not necessarily for the leads so we went out to look for them. Part of the reason is that not every actor is willing to take a giant pay cut to do something like this. The other half is, we just feel the level of talent and ability in the country is remarkable so if you cast a wide net, you will find something special. Two of our actors are still at the University of Ibadan, in the theatre arts department. Unfortunately, the Nigerian industry is set up in a way that unless you go and look for these people, it is unlikely that they will be found. Picking actors is always about who fits the character. I always tell actors not to feel bad if you don’t get the role. Most of the time it isn’t a reflection of ability but who is right for the character. We had some really great actors audition and a bunch of them are popular but they don’t match the character they are reading for. On the other side, they surprise you and it turns out maybe they aren’t good for this character but are better for this other one and that happened with Omoye Uzamere who plays Precious, Mofe’s sister. She came in to read for a different role.
I read the film as some kind of anti-migration screed. It is about immigration but it is more concerned with the lived in experiences of the people behind the numbers and the images we see on the news. Were you looking for a fresh angle to talk about immigration?
CE: Very much so, it is a counterpoint. As Nigerians you travel and before you arrive you find that people have already labelled you. The young women are prostitutes, the men are scam artists. I live in Nigeria and I know we are some of the hardest working people on the planet and that is true for the majority of Nigerians. We aren’t just people looking to fall into criminality. We are up at 5am and about till late nights. When you see these news stories in the West, there is a massive stigma. We wanted to present the truer, human side of events. It is simply people trying our best and pushing back against everything. That’s the majority of us. It isn’t just gunmen and easy women.
AE: You don’t just wake up and decide to cross the Sahara. I really wish that some of these news channels that spend so much time on the borders and filming people drowning would go into these countries and spend some time with the people and get to understand why their countries are driving them to make these perilous journeys.
The Warsan Shire poem Home does a good job of humanising immigrants. It opens with the lines No one leaves home/unless home is the mouth of the shark. For Eyimofe to work at all, it is critical that the humanity of the characters come through clearly, and it does. But there is also a lot of suffering that the characters go through. Why do they have to suffer so much and isn’t that flirting with the problem of telling that single story?
CE: We are very sensitive back home so I fully expect this criticism but I would always challenge those individuals to ask me if I am telling a lie. Did I make anything up? I mean I made it up obviously, it is fiction. But it is all real. There is an Igbo proverb that says that it is the person close to you that will tell you you have bad breath. I think that if you love a place then it is your duty to point out the flaws because you want it to be better. You cannot whitewash the truth. In general, we have a habit of not wanting to assess or critically engage with reality. Because there are many great Nigerians and many success stories, we want to hide behind all of that but there should be more and we need to present it as it is and maybe it will encourage people to question why they are suffering so much. Is it necessary and can it lead to better? James Baldwin says the artist’s job is to critique the society they live in.
I hear you but it is a sensitive balance to achieve. How do you ensure you aren’t just critiquing without the necessary depth?
CE: If you are telling an honest or humane story you will find a way to accommodate depth. Emotions are universal. Everybody knows love and anger and disappointment. Understanding these emotions is how you humanise people. I want to empathise and sympathise with all of my characters. I try not to judge and I want to understand what the individual is going through, where they are coming from.
AE: The filming respected all those ideas definitely. Being objective and allowing things to play out in a more naturalistic documentary type style
Can you really be objective when making art?
AE: Well as far as where you put the camera, yes. I can count the number of close ups there are in this film. They are very few. We are not interested in getting the camera in someone’s face and getting them to emote. Obviously, it is film and everyone is acting and doing a certain job but our camera was trying to be nonintrusive and let things play out as they might in real life. Just letting the audience be an observer in the scenes or scenarios that we presented.