A new African narrative
The aim of EYIMOFE is to present a fluid, modestly constructed picture that permits the audience to inhabit the space alongside its characters. The city of Lagos is central to the film. A cauldron of activity in which more than 20 million people are all moving towards something more. Like the seminal city films of Edward Yang and Robert Altman, we intend to give it credence by composing scenes in a way that constantly reminds us of the larger space our characters inhabit. Through the colours people wear, the laughter they share with friends, and the unsolicited kindness of strangers, EYIMOFE renders a sincere portrait of life in Nigeria – difficult to navigate and survive in, but equally full of goodness and life. Oftentimes films about Africa dwell on the extreme; the worlds and people presented are only familiar to us insofar as we know them through news stories or special appeal programmes. By inviting audiences in, our hope is that they will recognise the pieces of themselves that we all share. The time has come for a new African narrative. (Arie Esiri, Chuko Esiri)
Interview with Arie Esiri and Chuko Esiri: “Lagos was our stage”
What inspired you to write EYIMOFE?
Chuko Esiri: To be honest, I wrote the film over three years and it evolved quite a bit from its very first version. But I would say that at the heart of the first and the final version was a story about Nigeria. About migration and about the way in which the country, and Lagos particularly, interacts with its citizens, the opportunities it offers on the one hand, and how it drives people away on the other. I remember reading James Joyce’s book “Dubliners”, in which he says that he aimed to offer a well-polished looking glass into Dublin and the Irish people – that was a moment that really crystallised what I was trying to do with the story, with the screenplay of this movie. The film was conceived at a time when I wondered what sort of future I could have in Nigeria, and 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 the film.
Arie Esiri: The film changed a lot since the first draft that Chuko wrote, but ultimately I feel like I always had a hold of what he was trying to say, and those 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 average person. We’ve always been frustrated by that, so the work resonated with me. It was my job to try and 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 way things are done here frustrates people to such an extent, they are willing to risk their lives at sea to find new shores, wherever those may be.
You address migration and other social issues. What is your hope for this film?
Chuko Esiri: I just want people to experience this part of the world that they probably don’t know or have never seen. For them to recognise themselves in the characters, to go on an emotional journey with them. And also to recontextualise what you may have heard about why people are leaving the country.
Arie Esiri: We don’t set out to make films to prove a point or make people think a certain way, but rather to show a certain situation as truthfully as we can. Or to show what everyday life consists of here in Lagos. And that lends itself to the way we shoot, which is very objective, almost like a documentary, because we are just trying to convey the truth about a situation. By this I mean getting people to understand or, ideally, identify with these characters who come from a different place and culture. If they appreciate the adversities or show understanding, then hopefully there is also some beauty in what they’re seeing, and it can be inspiring to simply be taken to a new place.
We had friends who came 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.
The story is told in separate chapters. What led you to this decision?
Chuko Esiri: The story evolved quite a lot since the first draft. I ended up with chapters because during our last year in film school, a classmate sent a study around – I think it was the very first study that the Geena Davis Institute at USC had done on gender representation in film. When I read this study and looked at my work, I found that I was actually quite guilty of minimising the role of female characters. That then led me to start thinking about the character of Rosa, about her journey and her life, and about what life is like as a woman in Nigeria and how that compares to Mofe’s experience as a man. It slowly started building up from there. I wanted to make Rosa a more complex character, and through that she ended up getting her own chapter.
I think that when you’re working on something, or when you’re in a space where you’re inspired, you take inspiration from everywhere. While writing the script, I read Charles Dickens’ novel “Bleak House” and he does this thing where he turns central locations into characters and links people to these locations. That gave me to the idea of broadening the scope of the film, which is really how Rosa ended up with her chapter. I’d also watched a few films, including Fatih Akin’s AUF DER ANDEREN SEITE and Wong Kar-wai’s CHUNGKING EXPRESS, which have several parts. All this together gave me the necessary confidence to split the story up. I guess that’s a very long way of saying that Rosa’s character needed more space, so I gave her more.
Nigeria is made up of over 200 tribes. What did it entail to tell the story of the everyday person and represent this dynamic as well as possible?
Chuko Esiri: I personally don’t concern myself with tribalistic factors. I think the notion of tribes, particularly in the south, is an inheritance from a darker time. The story was told in Lagos and Lagos is located in what can be referred to as the “Yoruba” region of Nigeria, but in fact all tribes are represented in Lagos. So for me there were no ethnic or religious considerations. In daily life you’ll see Igbos mixing with Yorubas, being married to Yorubas. Christians mix with Muslims. It’s a melting pot. The notion of tribal and religious divisions is something that was used as a weapon by the colonial powers and is today used as a weapon by politicians.
What was your biggest challenge in making this film?
Arie Esiri: The biggest challenge when shooting in a place like Lagos will always be the infrastructure. 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. Uneven roads, inconsistent power and water supply. So it’s very difficult to tackle a film of this scale, in which you’re trying to make the city a third character, and shooting in over 40 locations with a sizeable crew.
There was also the additional challenge of shooting on film in a country that has no processing labs, which meant that for the most part we were shooting blind, since we didn’t get our dailies back immediately. We were seeing what we shot almost 5 days later, and that gave a lot of work to our director of photography.
Was there any particular reason for choosing to shoot on film?
Arie Esiri: 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 film is unbeatable and film has had a very recent resurgence with Kodak. I reached out to Kodak to get support to shoot on film and get myself acquainted with the medium. A lot of people shooting on digital now are trying to emulate what film does. 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 on set; it changes the dynamic since people are a lot more focused and 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 love were shot on film. And you just see what it does to a place, you see how it brings places like Taiwan to life – that is something we wanted to emulate in our film. Again, because Lagos is very central to the story.
How did you go about selecting your cast and eliciting the best performance from them?
Chuko Esiri: A lot of the work with the actors was very collaborative. We had about two weeks of rehearsals before the shoot, where we managed to understand the characters better and bring the actors closer to them. With Jude, who came back from England and hadn’t been home for a long time, I introduced him to an electrician who inspired the character that he’s playing. I simply took him to places where he could absorb the people, the accent, and the mannerisms. Jude is Nigerian, so it was 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. He taught them how the camera works and how much one should or shouldn’t emote in close-ups and wide shots. This way, the girls had a crash course in film acting. But everything always came back to who the characters are and how close you can bring the actors to the characters so that they react, emote, and behave like them.
How did you shape the look and feel of the film, and how did you make Lagos a third character?
Arie Esiri: Lagos was our stage. We were very consciously trying to fit it into our frames, so we used wide-angle lenses and backward movements in order to see more of what was happening – or, rather, more of the life around our characters. A lot of people mentioned how I was obsessed about 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 often I just got people and kids who were walking by to be in the film in order to fill the frame with life. But to accomplish that I thought about our language, the language we were using with our lenses and the staging of the characters in the heart of our scene. And the fact that we shot in over 40 locations just meant that you would see a lot of Lagos, the city was incorporated into the film this way. 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 motivated your choice of music and sound design for the film?
Arie Esiri: Our composer, Akin Adebowale, with whom I have worked very closely on several projects, is extremely generous and patient, so I could be very nitpicky with my references and he was very receptive to my ideas. We listened to at a lot of music from the East of Nigeria that emerged around the late 1960s and early 1970s, after 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, when Igbos tried get back on their feet, develop a positive outlook on life, and be grateful for having survived a very brutal war. I just felt that a lot of their songs’ 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, so 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 mixed uplifting sounds and contextualised these in a Nigerian setting. He gave them a traditional context, if that makes sense.
(Interview: Independent Diaspora)