There is a story a friend once told me. I do not know how truthful this story is. When I first heard it, it sounded like an old cautionary tale, fat with the unrealistic exaggerations of myths. But it is as valid a narrative about the Nigerian dream as any other. It is about an older mutual acquaintance. Let us name this man Mr. X. Mr. X used to live comfortably in Ibadan. He had a string of menial lucrative businesses he ran. He had a fiancée whose family he cared for just as he did his. He was kind, generous, and popular amongst his peers. Then one fateful night, after returning from the usual rounds he made to his business ventures, Mr. X slept and had the Nigerian dream.
In January, Sakiru Adebayo, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, published an article titled, “The Nigerian Dream is to Leave Nigeria” on africasacountry. While the title itself, the declaration of a unified dream for a nation as diverse as Nigeria, leaves one with a nagging question on generalization, the article succinctly dissects the poverty that pervades this country and how it disillusions this dream of “leaving”. Three months after it was published, Eyimofe arrives to reinforce that question in another medium.
Eyimofe (This is My Desire) follows two characters, Mofe (Jude Akwudike) and Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams), who are both striving to escape the harsh realities of their lives by migrating to Spain and Italy respectively. Both narratives never intersect more than once, and both are resolved with varying degrees of open-endedness. Written by Chuko Esiri and directed by Arie and Chuko Esiri, Eyimofe signals the nascency of two exciting filmmakers.
Eyimofe’s narrative interrogates the cost of dreaming certain dreams just as my friend’s story. What is the Nigerian dream which has now woken Mr. X in my friend’s story? After rising from this fated dream, my friend said Mr. X liquidated all his business ventures, got an international passport, and headed for Italy through Libya.
The movie has a pedantic meticulousness—the meagre number of characters, the paucity of locations, the visually gorgeous grainy look—that debut movies usually have. One can tell from its opening ambience that it is not a film concerned with breaking commercial records. Eyimofe attempts to capture the nuance of poverty and the helplessness that comes with it. When we interrogate the existence of the poor, by default, we cover a large part of what being human is.
In the world Eyimofe is set, which is our world, pregnant teenagers are normal occurrences, ATM cards get declined, people eat on the floor because they don’t have enough chairs. And most importantly, poor people are all poor people have, however exploitative or manipulative they treat one another and the rich.
We are introduced to Mr. Mofe, Mr. Fix-it-all—fixer of his workplace’s junction box, fixer of his nephew’s tennis bat, fixer of his sister’s television set, and ultimately, fixer of his and his sister’s lives. The titular character’s stoicism encapsulates the narrative tone of the movie. We never dwell on his emotions. We gauge the enormity of his joy or loss through the reaction of others. When he gets the international passport, we know it is a big deal only because of how his sister and his colleagues fuss over its acquisition. When he loses his loved ones, it is his neighbours’ shaky voices that express the magnitude of his loss. Yet, at most times, the camera never leaves Mofe. It is as though we are stalking him and his world absentmindedly. The scenes themselves are neatly cut to avoid drawn out deliberations on them.
Eyimofe wishes to leave Nigeria for Spain in search of a better life. The enormity of the poverty he lives in is never in doubt. Mofe himself appears indifferent to it, a tad desensitized towards his surroundings. The deceit of poverty is the irreconcilable imagination of wealth it affords the poor. The thought that if you tried, you too could change your situation in life, and the lives of those around you. In a wicked paradox, this deceit is all that keeps the poor working for “the rich”. It is also what makes them consider dangerous journeys in search of greener lives.
Mr X, my friend continued, was arrested on the sea and returned to Libya by coastal guards. With his money gone, he became a fugitive and worked his way through a new travelling fee. He couldn’t return home because it would mean he had failed. It would take him years working menial unspeakable jobs in Libya and neighbouring countries to gather the money needed. But he eventually did and headed one last time, through that treacherous waterly route, to Italy.
These stories, the actualising of them, day to day in the real world, are painfully boring. Our lives are this way, and there should be room for movies that attempt such recreations in our industry. It is easy to see why this movie would be termed boring by the average Nigerian. These are characters who reflect a portion of their lives without the unfocused fanfare of Lagos Island extravagance. Instead, we see that world of illusive wealth from the mainland perspective; what it is like to see such life through the window of poverty. And this description, in this section, is from the view of an honest prostitute.
Rosa is more assertive and outspoken than Mofe. All she does is for the betterment of hers and her sister’s lives. Rosa’s section of the story is livelier, there is more sound to follow, music, more laughter, more colours, but beneath all the shimmering excitement is that plaguing poverty. Rosa is being harassed by her landlord (Toyin Oshinaike), and can barely take care of her pregnant sister, Grace (Cynthia Ebijie). Unable to make ends meet, Rosa bargains with the devil to help them travel to Italy.
Mr. X lived in Italy for a number of years. He was an illegal immigrant; he shuttled between small jobs, he shared a room with twenty other immigrants, he paid for electricity and water through another tenant, and he didn’t know if the bills were being inflated because they seemed to increase bimonthly. Yet he could neither challenge the tenant nor demand a raise at work. He floated through existence in Italy. He phoned home now and then. He spoke to his aging mother. He spoke to his lonesome fiancée. Always, after every call, Mr. X curled up in his corner of the small apartment and cried himself to sleep.
Rosa soldiers through these realities with Grace. The beauty of Grace’s character is the small space of existence she has beside Rosa, whose character she shares most of her screen time with, and who is usually dominating. Cynthia Ebijie manages to carve a niche for her character in the scenes she appears in, particularly in scenes where she has lesser authority. When she disagrees, it is in an agreeing manner, but we know she doesn’t want that decision—a pregnant teenager with a prostitute sister in a metropolis, it is easy to coerce agreements out of her. When she is asked to swear by Kingpin (Chioma ‘Chigurl” Omenah) that she would give her unborn baby away in exchange for a visa to Italy, she says yes, but we can see and hear her say no. The docility that shadows her sister’s assertiveness cracks away deliberately at certain times, and it is obvious that Cynthia Ebijie has the switch in her hands.
Eventually, Rosa, like Mofe, watches her dreams crumble into befuddlement. Complications arise that see them embrace a new reality. New decisions are made, and somewhere around 2 hours, a door shuts the camera into a dark room, and the audience realizes that the movie is over, as abruptly as most Nigerian dreams end.
Pressured by his aging mother and his fiancée, Mr. X returns to Nigeria with all the money he saved while in Italy. They are happy to see him, but things have changed. His fiancée is pregnant. It had been almost a decade since he left, and she had made a mistake. They could still get married, she pleaded. Betrayed, Mr. X packed his bags once more, and turned his face to the occident. But this time, he didn’t want to have to pay for bills through tenants or hide from immigration officers, or share a room with twenty others like a farm pig. He wanted to return to Italy legally. Mr. X lost all his savings trying.
There are slight lapses in Eyimofe, almost imperceptible. For example, Mofe’s nephews are bad child actors, and the movie itself is forgivably “boring” in some rare parts. But these are almost imperceptible, and the brilliance of the film easily overshadows them. What is most important here is that Eyimofe (This is My Desire) could potentially be ushering in a new wave of artsy Nollywood films.
- My colleagues, Sunday Joy and Nwafor Fortune, who both played minor roles in the movie, were as brilliant to watch as they have always been these past years that I have seen them act at the University of Ibadan.
- That scene Eyimofe went to get a coffin with his father has such fine composition. The whole movie does, but that scene is a great example.
- Mr. X is doing fine today.
Eyimofe is available as a Criterion Collection.