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Esiri twin brother directors on their favourite filmmakers and inspiration behind Eyimofe

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Arie (left) and Chuko on set of Eyimofe

Born 1985 in Warri, Delta State, Nigeria, twin brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri are the brains behind Eyimofe, a film presented by GDN Studios. While Arie studied Screenwriting and Directing at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Chuko holds an MFA in Screenwriting and Directing from the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Film Program. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, the brothers, who co-directed Eyimofe, spoke on their journey to filmmaking, their influences and the latest film project, Eyimofe, which will premiere on Monday at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival.

What actually informed your decision to go into filmmaking?
(CHUKO): For me, personally, I came in through literature and theatre. I studied theatre in school. At one point, I was considering whether to go to drama school to study acting, but my parents vetoed that decision. So, I ended up doing law; I was never really happy with pursuing that in a professional capacity and slowly found my way to filmmaking. I felt a compulsion to tell stories; it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do passionately. For me, the realisation came at Law School simply because considering a life in that field was making me very unhappy; I didn’t want to be a lawyer and the only other thing I wanted to do was this. I thought I wanted to come in as a producer, but over my time at film school, I came to realise that the stories I wanted to tell were closer to me than I had thought and I wanted to write and direct. That’s how I ended up on this side of the camera.

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Did you ever work together on a film project before Eyimofe?
(CHUKO): The first thing we worked on was an exercise that I did in my first year at school; we followed a meat contractor in our village in Delta State (Nigeria) for five days. Arie did all the cinematography and I did sound and directing. It was a two-man crew. So, that was the very first thing we worked on. After that, we worked on a narrative short together called Goose in my last year at film school in 2016. I wrote that and we produced and directed it together; that was the first project we directed together. We had worked together in a different capacity on Besida, which was my second-year short film.

Could you share your experience working together, especially as twin brothers? Who decides what?
(ARIE): I think just by virtue of the fact that Chuko comes from a literary background and from theatre as well, and that I come from a photography background, it tends to be the case that I’m more involved in the visual aspect of the film and Chuko with the story; he’s also a bit more hands-on with the actors. At least, that’s how it has played out for our short film Goose and how it played out for Eyimofe in part because Chuko also wrote those two films. We haven’t yet had the pleasure of working on something that I’ve written or that we’ve penned together and I imagine that the dynamics on that set would be a little bit different. But for the most part, like with Eyimofe where Chuko had been working on the script for a long time and I read every single draft, been involved in the development of the story, the casting of the actors. But ultimately, I’ve known that my job, when we got on set, was to bring this thing that Chuko had been working on for over four years and that I’d been chipping away at, was to bring that to life. For Eyimofe, I feel the visual language we’d built was very much dictated by what Chuko had envisioned for the film. We have very similar tastes in movies and we also know our tastes in movies, so, we have a very easy shorthand and we look to Far Eastern cinema for example in this film. I’ve introduced Chuko to Hou Hsiao-hsien and he absolutely fell in love with that filmmaker. Then, Chuko got into Edward Yang and passed Edward Yang to me and that’s how it worked – so whilst it’s Chuko guiding us through this film as he’s lived with it for the longest, it’s still very much us making the work.

What was the inspiration behind writing Eyimofe?
(CHUKO): In earnest, I wrote the film over three years and it evolved quite a bit from its very first iteration. But I would say that at the heart of the first version of this film and the final version, was a story about Nigeria really; about migration and about the way in which the country, and Lagos particularly, interacts with its citizens and how that can, on the one hand, give you opportunities and on the other hand push you out. I remember reading James Joyce’s book Dubliners and in reading it, Joyce said that he aimed to put up a well-polished looking glass into Dublin and the Irish people and that for me was a moment that really crystalised what I was trying to do in the story, in the screenplay of this movie. It really came out of a time when I was wondering what sort of future I could have in Nigeria and was wondering what sort of future Nigeria could have for itself. I was really beginning to understand this allure of getting out and I put those feelings on paper and into this.

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(ARIE): The film changed a lot since the first draft Chuko wrote, but ultimately, I feel I’ve always had a hold of what it is that he was trying to say and those things are things that we have talked about consistently. His frustrations about what we go through; what everyone in the country goes through on a daily basis, particularly the everyday person. We’ve always been frustrated by that, so, the work resonated with me and it was my job to try to help Chuko make the writing as concise as possible and strike at the heart of some of the issues the film is trying to highlight. You know, the Byzantine nature in which we go about doing things here that frustrates people to such an extent that they are willing to risk their lives at sea to find new shores, wherever that may be.

How were you able to get into the mindset of the everyday person in such detail?
(CHUKO): Though I spent the majority of my youth outside of Nigeria, the way things affect each person is the same in terms of the micro frustrations and the limits of the country. So, that thought was already there. But outside of that, I did my National Youth Service; I worked at a library for a year. I made a wide range of friends and acquaintances and just really talked to people. I go for walks around different areas and you just keep your eyes open and observe and listen, and it all filters in. But fundamentally though, rich or poor, you will come face to face with Nigeria’s frustrations.

You touch on migration and other social issues, what is your hope for this film?
(CHUKO): I just want people to experience this part of the world that they probably don’t know or have never seen; to recognise themselves in the characters, to go on an emotional journey with the characters. And also to recontextualize what you may or may not have heard about the reasons why people are leaving the country.

(ARIE): We don’t set out to make films to prove a point or make people think a certain way, but more to show in as much truth as we can, what a certain situation is like; what the quotidian here in Lagos entails. And that lends itself to the way we shoot, which is very objective, almost like documentary style, as we are just trying to convey a truth about a situation. I mean, through that, you have people understand or identify, you hope, with these characters who come from a different place and culture, and while they are appreciating or appreciative of the adversities one hopes that there is some beauty in what you are seeing, and just being brought to a new place can be inspiring.

I mean, we had friends come to Lagos after seeing the film; they were attracted to this city. It’s a very alluring place; the city is very much a third character in the film.

Was that part of what you set out to achieve with the film?
(CHUKO): I think it was very much a surprise when friends wanted to visit after seeing the film. The great power of cinema is that it has the ability to take you somewhere that you’ve never been and anytime you’re able to achieve that with a film, then it’s a success.

(ARIE): It was very much a surprise for me as well; we didn’t set out to advertise or to try and improve tourism in Lagos. But the fact that people have seen the film and have felt very drawn to the place, and were inspired by the characters is very touching. It takes me back to my first experience watching Vittorio De Sica’s work, you know; identifying with an Italian guy from the 1950s.

The story is told in separate chapters, what was the process that led you to that decision?
(CHUKO): The story evolved quite a lot from the first draft. It ended up in chapters because we were in our last year in film school and one of our classmates sent around, I think it was the very first study that the Geena Davis Institute at USC had done on Gender Representation in Film, and in reading that and looking at my work, I found that I was actually quite guilty of minimizing the role of female characters. And then, that led me to start thinking about the character of Rosa and about her journey and about her life and about what that’s like as a woman in Nigeria and how that compares to Mofe as a man in Nigeria. It slowly sort of built out of there; I wanted to make her a larger character and in doing so she ended up gaining her own chapter.

I think when you’re working on something, or when you’re in a space where you’re inspired, you sort of draw it from everywhere. And during scripting, I read Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House and he did this thing where he made central locations characters and tying people to those locations. That sort of led me to the idea of broadening the scope of the piece, which is really how Rosa ended up with her chapter. I’d also watched a couple of films, Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven and Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, and these films are also divided up. And putting this all together gave me the confidence to divide the story up. I guess that’s a very long way of saying Rosa’s character needed more space and so I gave her more.

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In separating the chapters and having representation from each gender, do you feel that one gender faces more hardship than the other?
(CHUKO): They’re different, but it’s certainly women. Purely because it’s patriarchy and the options that a woman has to escape, figuratively and literally, are very different. There are more expectations of what a woman should and should not be doing or what she should or should not be grateful for. These rules don’t apply to men.

With over 200 tribes, what was it like telling the story of the everyday Nigerian and best representing this dynamic?
(CHUKO): I personally don’t consider tribalistic factors; I think the notion of tribes, particularly in the South is very much inheritance from a darker time. The story was told in Lagos and Lagos is located in what can be referred to as a ‘Yoruba’ region of Nigeria, but every tribe is represented in Lagos. So, I didn’t have ethnic or religious concerns. In day-to-day lives, you’ll see Igbos mixing with Yurobas; married to Yorubas. You see Christians mixing with Muslims; it’s a melting pot. The notion of the tribe and religious division are things that were used as weapons by colonials and today, politicians use them as weapons.

What was your biggest challenge working on Eyimofe?
(ARIE): The biggest challenge in shooting in a place like Lagos will always be infrastructural. This is a city of 20 million people with no organised public transport system and exceptionally bad traffic, very few traffic lights at intersections and all these kinds of things. So, trying to tackle a film of this scale in which you’re trying to make the city the third character, and shooting in over 40 something locations with a sizeable crew, is very tricky to navigate.

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There was also the additional challenge of shooting on film in a country that has no processing labs. So, for the most part, we were shooting blind where you kind of shoot and don’t get your dailies back immediately. We were seeing what we shot almost five days after; that left a lot of work for our director of photography.

Was there any particular reason you chose to shoot on film?

(ARIE): For starters, I had been shooting exclusively on film for about a year before we began production on Eyimofe and I felt like my work had transformed. The texture of the film is unbeatable and film has had a very recent resurgence with Kodak, and I had started conversations with them than about getting their support to shoot on film and to get myself acquainted with the medium; Kodak was very helpful. A lot of people that are shooting on digital now are trying to emulate what film does and they are getting closer and closer, but they still can’t get that same quality that film gives you. I think shooting on film also changes the discipline onset; it changes the dynamic as people are a lot more focused and you have to be a lot more precise. But ultimately, the filmmakers we love like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, pretty much all their movies we loved were shot on film and you just see what it does to a place; you see how it brings places like Taiwan to life, which is something we wanted to emulate in our film.

How did you go about selecting your cast and eliciting the best performance from them?
(ARIE): We were always certain that we would be going out to find new talent and not leaning on the industry stars in Nigeria. So, I was always keen on finding new people, raw talent, and mixing that in with professional actors. I experienced that when I was working on a feature called B for Boy and I thought the approach worked. I thought it was a formula, which worked really well. So, when we were sitting down and thinking about the actor for Mofe, Jude Akuwudike came to mind almost immediately. He’s an actor that I’d seen on stage in the UK in Nigerian plays predominantly, but I first saw him in a play called The Estate. He had always stuck with me as an actor and I wanted to work with him from the very first time I saw him on stage. I could really see Jude embodying Mofe. And then, we just went out and tried to find exceptional raw talents of which there are many in Lagos and in the surrounding areas. We went to the University of Lagos, went to the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, which is in a neighbouring state to Lagos. Sure enough, we found some great leads. And then, we also got some established industry actors and theatre actors in Nigeria. But this was something we had experienced when we made Chuko’s short film Besida in Abraka in Delta State, where there isn’t much of a film industry, but we were working a lot with people who were just interested in performance; people that were in their church theatre group or were dancers in traditional dance troupes.

It was always a question of honing their abilities as performers and their understanding and recontextualising these for the world we were trying to build. I think also from a story standpoint, we wanted to work with people that were here and living this reality, collaborating with them in building the story and understanding of the characters, and hearing stories from their own personal lives and the lives of their families and friends. That was crucial in how we steered the direction and the storytelling.

(CHUKO): As Arie said, a lot of the work with the actors was very collaborative; it was discussed who the characters were. We had about two weeks of rehearsals beforehand where we managed to get underneath the skins of who the characters were and drawing the actors closer to them. With Jude, who had come in from England and hadn’t been back home for a long time, I introduced him to an electrician, who inspired the character that he’s playing; just putting him in the spaces where he could imbibe the people, the accent and the mannerisms. With Jude, he’s a Nigerian, so it’s in there somewhere we just had to remind him. With the girls, it was really about understanding film language. We had an acting coach come in and work with them and he really taught them the specifics of the camera and how much one needs to or doesn’t need to emote in close-ups and wides. So, with the girls, they had that crash course in acting for film, but everything was always going to come back to who the characters are and how close you can bring the actor to that character so that they react, emote and behave as that individual.

What was your process when it came to the look and feel of the film? Also, at what point did you decide to make Lagos a third character?
(CHUKO): Lagos becoming the third character in the film happened organically; you only have a certain amount of space on the screen. Part of our goal was to create the sense of a larger space existing beyond where the characters are inhabiting in how we framed scenes, in sound design as well – Lagos is a very loud place and a very full place. We filmed in an objective manner so that you’re further away, and when you’re further away you get to see more. So, there are plenty of scenes that are wider, medium wide and the camera remains fixed and you’ve got your characters engaging and the life around them still happening. That also creates a sense of a much bigger world in which a million other things are happening, not just what’s relevant to the story.

(ARIE): Lagos was the stage. We were very conscious of trying to fit it into our frames, so, we were putting wider lenses and backing up so we could see more of what was happening or rather more of the life around our characters. A lot of people mentioned about how much I obsessed over people walking in the background, whether it’s the tailor with the scissors or the lady selling bread early in the morning – these are all things I wanted to include in our frames and a lot of times just putting people and kids on the street, who were walking by and just getting them to be in the film and filling the frame up with life. But to accomplish that, I thought about our language, the language we were using with our lenses and staging the characters in the heart of the locale. And the fact that we shot in over 40 locations just meant that you would see a lot of Lagos. So, the city was scripted into the film; it exists in the script as a third character. So, in that regard, a lot of the work was already done for us when we went out to make the film.

What informed your choice of music and sound design for the film?
(ARIE): Our composer, Akin Adebowale, who I worked with very closely on several projects, is extremely generous and patient; it meant that I could be very nitpicky with my references and he was very receptive to my ideas. But ultimately, we looked at a lot of music from the East of Nigeria that emerged around the late 1960s early 1970s, which posted the Biafra war. A lot of that music has elements of Blues and also the celebratory elements of highlife, and a lot of that stems from the aftermath of the civil war where Igbos were trying to find their feet again and take a positive outlook on life and be grateful for having survived a very brutal war.

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I just felt that a lot of their song messages resonated with the film; people trying to find a better life for themselves, trying to answer life questions, trying to survive their circumstances and overcome their shortcomings. That really was the fabric of everything we set out to make. We had a lot of highlife guitars and riffs, and at the same time, Akin would mix uplifting sounds musically and contextualise these in a Nigerian setting; giving them a traditional context if that makes sense.

Working so closely as brothers on your first feature together, were there times when your emotions got the better of you? And if so, how did that feed into making the best movie you could?
(CHUKO): I fired Arie twice, but with contracts and living at home with mum, I figured I’d hire him back! Actually, most of the disagreements we had were in post-production. In the actual production, we weren’t as entrenched or dug in on certain ideas. Post-production is when we had most of our disagreements.

(ARIE): The key was always having someone else in the room. But in all seriousness, I think having a great editor and someone, who has a wonderful eye for stories like Andrew Stephen Lee, who was our editor, was pivotal. He was a really wonderful arbiter and swing vote, someone who was not very close to it; we were very close to the film in different ways. Chuko was close to it in that he wrote it and I was very close to it in that I co-directed it, so it was good to have someone that wasn’t that close and understood what we were going for, and understood the language of the film and could objectively mediate.

When you watched the final film, were you happy with what you had accomplished?
(CHUKO): I’m never going to be happy with a film. The artist’s life is a failure.

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(ARIE): I think that’s a hard one because you go through many stages in which you’re looking at what you think is the final version of the film, so you know there were a couple of times when we felt the film was done and then it would only take us a few days and we’re back in the editing room. I think I felt that way when we picture locked in April; I never felt that it was picture locked and really fought to continue pushing on with the edit and I’m glad that we did. I much prefer the version we landed on than the ones before that we thought were going to be the film. But ultimately, I think Chuko is right, as an artist, you tend to see your mistakes more than you do your successes. But when I sit down and watch the film, I admire the cinematography, the production design, the performances. I marvel at what these young women, who had never taken on major roles in features, I marvel at what they achieved. And I think of our acting coach and the notes that our on-set editor gave. When I see the film, I really see a huge collaborative effort on everyone’s part, from producers right down to the interns. This is a film that we pulled off in over 40 locations in Lagos; for me, it’s a triumph.

Now that your film is done, what impact do you hope it can have on the Nigerian film industry?
(CHUKO): The first thing that I’ll say is that people have been making a mistake in conflating Nollywood and the Nigerian film industry. I believe those are two very different things; Nollywood being a part of the Nigerian film industry. In terms of the impact this can have, I don’t really think it’s our position to forecast or claim or plant a flag or anything like that. The only thing that I would say is that I hope the film encourages people, who have different stories that they want to tell, to go out and make them.

(ARIE)
: I honestly don’t think that it’s filmmakers and films that change film industries, I think it’s industries. I think it’s people with standing, people that are involved in a way politically with upholding the culture and valuing all artistic practices – seeing these practices as important. There have been many African films that have been made on the continent, and African filmmakers that we look to as examples and as heroes, but ultimately, I can’t go to Senegal for example and hire my film crew; I can’t go there and find a plethora of cinematographers or production designers that have been trained and working and living off their work in Senegal. A lot of the French films, for example, are supported by the Ministere de la Culture de la France. So, as an industry, we need to start looking inwardly to understand how we can begin to grow talent at home and that is what will sustain and grow our industry. Looking at companies like GDN Studios, like what they’re doing supporting filmmakers like ourselves and taking an interest in developing sound original content that is made by Nigerians in Nigeria. These are the kinds of institutions that I think will be changing the industry and allowing many more of us to tell our stories, and giving us the support we need to do so.

So what’s next for you both?
(CHUKO): Hollywood… Black Panther 3!!

(ARIE)
: Jokes aside, this is where we want to do our life’s work. Nigeria and Nigerians inspire us on a daily basis and this is just where our heart is as creatives, as filmmakers, as storytellers. Right now, Chuko is working on an adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel and I am also working on original content, particularly a very interesting story that took place in my hometown that I’ve wanted to put on screen for a very long time. And we’re also working on an original TV idea that looks at young returnees to Nigeria, which we were in our mid-20s, and understanding the complications of navigating life or education abroad and the realities here at home, of living in Nigeria and trying to make a way for yourself.

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