The Good People Of “Eyimofe”
“This is Wisdom,” the titular character says in “Eyimofe,” the début feature co-directed by the Nigerian brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri. Mofe, as he is known, is an electrician at a printing press. He is introducing a new apprentice, whose name is Wisdom, to his co-workers. But “this is Wisdom”—he says it twice—resonates. It serves as a signal, one of many in this artful and luminous film, that we are watching a search for how best to live.
“Eyimofe (This is My Desire)” is set primarily in Lagos, and unfolds in two subtly related parts, with a brief epilogue. The two leads, Mofe and Rosa, both want to emigrate to Europe: Spain for him, Italy for her. They never meet—first we see his story, then we see hers—but they are linked by neighborhood and by some of the secondary characters with whom they interact.
At the printing press, Mofe (played with quiet consternation by Jude Akuwudike) is respectfully addressed as “Engineer” by his colleagues. The honorific does nothing to ease the deep frustration he feels at his low pay and dangerous work conditions. He is particularly irked by an array of malevolent-looking junction boxes, which, despite his pleading, the management at the press fail to replace. In one relatively brief stretch, we witness three workplace accidents, two of them electrical shocks. In the background, as Mofe absorbs the second, more severe shock, a printed sign can be seen: “The best safety tool is a safe worker.” At night, he has a second job as a watchman. He is stupefied with fatigue.
With his meagre resources, he goes to an informal agent who promises him papers as good as the real thing. A passport is made. Not long after, an appalling tragedy strikes his family. What happens is so awful that it would immobilize anyone, but Mofe has to return to work. Akuwudike is ideally cast in the role: he has a life-astonished face, essentially impassive, but set into subtle tremors by each further hardship. Mofe presses on, trying to pay his bills and meet his responsibilities, while readying himself to leave Nigeria. There are rare moments of relief. On a sympathy visit after the tragedy, his magnanimous landlord, Mr. Vincent, tells him not to worry about the next month’s rent.
Like Mofe, Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams) has two jobs: hairdresser by day, bartender by night. She hopes to travel with her teen-age younger sister Grace (Cynthia Ebijie), who is sickly, impetuous, winsome, and pregnant. They cannot extricate themselves from Lagos without help, but help keeps turning up in the worst way possible. Their trip to Italy is being arranged by the boisterous and sinister Mama Esther. She makes them swear an oath that Grace’s baby will be given to her as payment. (Why? It’s not explained in the film, but I have heard of long infertile couples in Lagos suddenly showing up with newborns, to great fanfare from family.) When things don’t work out with Grace’s baby, Mama Esther smoothly offers new terms: the girls must agree to be trafficked into sex work. At her bartending job, Rosa meets a young, well-to-do American, who soon discovers that he would prefer a girlfriend who didn’t have pressing financial needs. Meanwhile, her landlord—Mr. Vincent again, in one of a handful of well-handled coincidences in the script—says, “What if I ask you not to pay this month’s rent?” But what we hear in his voice this time is not magnanimity.
For this film’s main characters, plans have a way of falling through. One disappointment follows another, complications accrete, and there are numerous bruises to personal dignity. For those, like Mofe and Rosa, whose hearts are set on escape, life becomes an obstacle course of documents: passport, medical report, letter of invitation, employment letter, visa. All of it costs money, enormous sums in aggregate. It is a testament to Chuko Esiri’s compact and intelligent script that the film moves by its own persuasive logic, feeling neither like a catalogue of miseries nor a sentimental exercise in third-world pluck.
The readiest description of “Eyimofe” is that it is a film about immigration. But we never see an embassy, nor an airport. No tickets are purchased. For both Mofe and Rosa, the ambition to leave comes to seem desultory. The pain is personal: the setbacks hurt their hopes, but hurt the people themselves somewhere deeper. Mofe, asked at one point if he’s travelling, answers, in sheer exhaustion, “I don’t know.”
If “Eyimofe” is about attempts at immigration, the heart of the film seems to me to be elsewhere. These are two characters who, for all the differences in their age, gender, and vocation, share a temperament. They are both patient, resourceful, and, above all, good. “Eyimofe” is that rare thing: a study in goodness, goodness as distinct from saintliness. Rosa, for instance, is not simply a victim of misogyny and poverty. She is able to look at bad options time and again and, without self-pity, without panic, make the least bad choice. She is considerate with everyone she encounters, even those, like Mr. Vincent, with whom she has to draw clear boundaries. Mofe, after he’s fired from the printing press for a brief incident of justifiable rage, opens up a repair shop. In spite of his own precarious finances, he hires Wisdom as an apprentice. His laconic kindness to the younger man is mirrored by Rosa’s tenderness toward her sometimes sullen, often immature sister.
Another kind of story might have been about how too much deprivation warps people’s moral intelligence. “Eyimofe” asserts faith in the idea that happiness and goodness don’t always coincide, and that the latter can flourish even in the absence of the former. The film challenges us to look past the trope of desperation, toward the many people who are defined not by what they have lost but by what—against the odds—they have been able to keep. And we don’t get the sense that Mofe and Rosa, in their goodness, are bizarre outliers. There are other good people around them. Grace notes abound.
For viewers familiar with the hectic conventions of Nigeria’s Nollywood films, the calm cinematography and understated editing of “Eyimofe” might come as a surprise. Shot on sixteen-millimetre celluloid film (lensed by Arseni Khachaturan), with long camera shots and off-center framing, the movie is achingly beautiful, bringing to mind a number of celebrated films of contemporary world cinema. The intense colors—the red jumpsuits worn by Mofe, Rosa’s yellow dress, the glossy deep cerulean of a hospital’s walls, the dreamy hues of the nighttime scenes—evoke the lush visuals of Wong Kar Wai’s “In The Mood for Love.” The solid but unshowy plotting shares the Chekhovian elegance of Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation.” And the West African setting, alongside the uncondescending treatment of poor people’s dreams, brings to mind Mati Diop’s visionary “Atlantics.” This is cinema that wears its influences on its sleeve. (The co-directors are recent film-school graduates, and have cited Satyajit Ray and New Taiwanese Cinema.) But the work does not feel derivative, in part because the influences are numerous and in part because we simply haven’t seen a film like this set in Lagos, which has a claim to be Africa’s largest city. The visual antecedents are skillfully applied to new material. Perhaps in future outings, the brothers won’t lean quite so hard on the ready-made romanticism of celluloid. They might find their way to something less varnished, something more true to the now. But such is the care and craft of this film that it is hard to begrudge them its occasional lapses into nostalgia.
In the epilogue, Mofe’s feckless father attempts to saddle him with the care of Blessing, a much younger half brother. Firmly, Mofe refuses. After all, he already has an apprentice. In a film in which names hold so much charge, this feels like a pointed choice. Mofe—whose own name means “I want” or “my desire”—has decided to pass over an unknown blessing in favor of a more reliable wisdom.
Teju Cole teaches at Harvard University. His most recent book is “Golden Apple of the Sun.