“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – to borrow a phrase often credited to John Lennon – is the movie This Is My Desire (aka Eyimofe) distilled down to an essence. Told in distinct chapters subtitled Spain and Italy, it follows two denizens of Lagos, Nigeria, and dives into their lives while they wait for the passports and paperwork that will allow them to seek a better life elsewhere.
First up, Mofe, and in the film’s opening shot – a tangle of wires bursting like mattress stuffing from an ancient electrical junction box – a metaphor for the whole film. Messy, potentially dangerous, lives lived hugger-mugger in a rundown environment. Mofe is a naturally talented fixer who can turn his hand to anything. The day job in a chronically under-invested factory consists of keeping the machines running – the electrics keep shorting out.
Later, Rosa, a smart, personable and hard-working young woman, hairdresser by day, barkeep by night, caring also for her sister in a frugal rented dwelling where nothing really works properly.
Both Mofe and Rosa are right at the edge of a bearable existence. Both are admirable people. Both are permanently broke. Both are tired all the time. No wonder Europe beckons. And then, as if to add insult to injury, each has first one, then the other leg chopped out from under. For Mofe it’s a family tragedy of the sort that would finish many people. For Rosa it’s medical bills, which exacerbate her inability to make ends meet even working all the hours, and on top of that the unwanted attention of her wheedling landlord, Vincent. Both keep going, adapting, ingenious, desperate.
It looks at first, nudged by the chapter headings, that this is going to be the story of two people who eventually wind up dead on the perilous sea crossing to Europe. It’s a less tragic and obvious, but more interesting story than that, being a snapshot of life in the Nigerian capital – an oil-rich country where the one-per-center logic of neo-liberalism is stark and where the shiny new world of WhatsApp tech and airy modern offices exists alongside the slum dwellings, with their poor amenities and bad sanitation.
There are the obvious novelties – the look of a foreign country where people have names like Precious and Wisdom and Blessing and greet each other with a “How now” rather than “Hey there”, and (to the eyes of someone from the developed world) the shock of such a young population. Film-makers the Esiri brothers – Nigerian but with many stamps in their passports – are alive to all those aspects as well as the aesthetic possibilities of Nigeria’s bustling, lively capital city.
It’s a beautifully made film. Artfully artless, music-free, no tricks, careful with its colour juxtapositions, lit (by DP Arseni Khachaturan) precisely so as to preserve the sense of free-flowing realism that’s all pervasive. Italian neo-realism is an influence, Da Sica in particular, and the sense of eavesdropping on lives that will carry on whether we are watching or not is strong, particularly in the Mofe segment.
The acting is of a high order, Jude Akuwudike getting the best of it as the engineer Mofe, though Temi Ami-Williams is also impressive in her debut as the benighted Rosa.
Made outside the Nollywood system, it’s the directorial debut of Arie and Chuko Esiri too, and such a great film that they immediately go into the category of fantastic fraternal film-makers including the Dardennes, the Safdies, the Spierigs, the Coens and, once upon a time at least, the Wachowskis.
© Steve Morrissey 2021