Closed Borders
By Kelli Weston

Eyimofe (This Is My Desire)
Dir. Arie and Chuko Esiri, Nigeria, Janus Films

Traces of two-ness populate Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), the directorial debut from twin brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri (and written by Chuko), a heartfelt tale of dashed migration. The diasporic condition naturally invites questions of duality that are far from merely symbolic, except here characters are bound to one nation, mobility interrupted, mired—as the poor often are—in debt and stymied by pervasive institutional corruption. In yet another way, they remain anchored to home and its more uncertain perimeters: that is, the connections that constitute it.

The Esiris divide their melancholy diptych between two beleaguered Lagos residents, each preparing to migrate illegally to Europe: Spain for Mofe (Jude Akuwudike) in the first half, and Italy for Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams) in the latter, so the title cards of their respective episodes announce. They never formally meet, although briefly they cross paths in the waiting room of a hospital, where life and death transform (all too familiarly) into capital. Indeed, a seemingly endless stream of naira is demanded from them at every turn, above all to procure those coveted green passports, the very sign of statehood that should ironically secure their escape. But in Eyimofe, these emblems of nation make rather ominous symbols; there is almost never enough naira to cover the expenses of living (or dying, for that matter) and passports—at first precious commodities, cradled, passed around, and marveled over—become bleak harbingers of the borders that ultimately confine them.

In their efforts to navigate the unrelenting, casual exploitation of Nigerian bureaucracy and the greedy, selfish, or otherwise indifferent upper classes, Mofe and Rosa begin to mirror each other. Both must work two jobs to keep themselves and their families afloat: Rosa scuttles between hair stylist and bartender; meanwhile, Mofe—who can often be relied upon to fix broken things around his house and neighborhood—works by day as an electrician and moonlights as a security guard. He lives with his sister Precious (Uzamere Omoye) and her children, until tragedy places him at odds with his miserly father. Rosa, too, looks after her pregnant teenage sister, Grace (Cynthia Ebijie), discernibly ambivalent about approaching motherhood. These modest domiciles, complicated by a prevailing sense of weariness, if not quite gloom, turn out to be precarious, the tenuous comfort found there easily shattered. For Rosa in particular, there also lurks a creeping discomfort, thanks to her leering, middle-aged landlord, constantly intruding on the household and romantically propositioning her.

While Rosa and Grace reveal certain gendered vulnerabilities—preyed upon by men and later, when plans go awry, the suggestion that prostitution awaits them in Italy—their chapter somehow possesses less vitality than Mofe’s. For instance, lingering close-ups of Mofe’s hands as he determinedly wrenches away at some object or fiddles with a bundle of wires establish central facts about him. In multiple ways, he is generally predisposed to setting things right. Soft-spoken and warm, he is a nurturer. Children are drawn to him. At his day job, he becomes a mentor figure to a newly hired young mechanic, whose hand he tends to after a workplace accident in one of the film’s rare lighter scenes. In another, crumbling under grief, he stares up at a box of tangled, colorful cables, seemingly taunting him while his manager shouts rudely into his earpiece. Later, he charges back wildly, taking a hammer to all the circuits. His quiet penchant for mending the world around him makes this moment of destruction all the more startling. It helps that the camera loves Akuwudike’s face, perpetually strained, open wide eyes, transparent in all their frustration and mourning. His endearingly emotional performance enlivens the material.

Ami-Williams is equally compelling as Rosa, but the overall scope ofher characterization pales in comparison. The first half’s emphasis on Mofe’s craft leaves a noticeable absence when she enters. She is a hairdresser, but the film spends little time either drawing parallels between her vocation and her desires—like it does with Mofe—or defining her apart from the adversity she flails against. The film sees her don a number of wigs and so, embody a number of transformations, most often when she is with Peter (Jacob Alexander), the earnest American expat she starts dating, much to the displeasure of her possessive landlord. But in some ways, she remains fundamentally remote, continually positioned from the vantage of her relationships, as sister or potential partner.

The Esiris deliver an elegant portrait of family and nationhood, one that’s notably straightforward, especially when, of late, the perils of immigration have been increasingly explored and translated in horror, namely films such as Atlantics (2020) and His House (2020). Eyimofe avoids the supernatural but does not entirely shy away from implied hauntings, for death shadows both Rosa and Mofe’s would-be journeys. What’s more, certainly we know, even if they do not, that life abroad does not promise an experience much different from the one they live in Lagos. And rather shrewdly the film conveys that one need not ever leave home to encounter the effects of all that imperialism has wrought, brimming as it is with characters whose names reach out across the diaspora: Precious, Grace, Wisdom, Blessing.

Lagos becomes a vivid character here, in no small part due to Arseni Khachaturan (also responsible for the gorgeous imagery found in the 2020 Georgian film Beginning), whose comely cinematography, shot on 16mm, captures crowded, bustling streets and alluring bursts of color: the dusty pink hues of Rosa’s salon or the neon green lights that draw Grace from her solitary night stroll to Mofe’s outdoor working space, where he labors over yet another project. In another sublime shot, a slew of automobiles wade gracefully down a flooded road. But elsewhere, the film might have benefited from flourish or visual distinction, especially when compared to Atlantics or Rosine Mbakam’s brilliant Chez Jolie Coiffure (2018). Sometimes Eyimofe feels so disciplined and restrained that it descends into the prosaic, checking off the expected boxes: the leeching, self-serving father or the mercurial madam, the woman forced into unwanted marriage. Eyimofe culminates in a hopeful end for Mofe—less so for Rosa, revealingly—but in its meticulous execution, the film foregoes a more incisive, less inhibited delineation of all the borders that conspire to trap its characters.