On Naija neorealism.
By Victor Omojola
If Arie Esiri, SOA ’19, were to make a Nigerian sci-fi film, there would be no flying cars. Instead, “things would just work,” he says. “There would be buses that come on time. There would be well-paved roads. There would be a healthcare system. There would be an education system.”
It is this optimistically pragmatic vision of society that enables Esiri’s first feature, Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), to flourish. The film offers a dual portrait of a mourning engineer and a financially burdened hairdresser. Depleted and drained by corrupt government and rigid gender norms, the pair envision futures beyond Lagos, in Madrid and Rome.
Duality is a recurring theme in Esiri’s personal life—he co-directed Eyimofe with his twin brother, Chuko, who wrote the film. While Arie was perfecting his craft in the dungeons of Columbia’s Dodge Hall, Chuko was doing the same a few stops down the 1 train at Tisch. Though Eyimofe is not the brothers’ first collaboration—their short films Goose (2017) and Besida (2018) premiered at the LA Film Festival and the Berlinale, respectively—the work has proven a star turn for the filmmaking duo. In a glowing New Yorker review, Nigerian-American novelist and Columbia alum Teju Cole called the film “a study in goodness,” both “artful and luminous.”
Eyimofe, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020, took home Blackstar’s Best Narrative Feature prize in Philadelphia and five awards at the African Movie Academy Awards, including Best Director. Most recently, Eyimofe was nominated for Outstanding International Motion Picture at this year’s NAACP Image Awards and will be released on the Criterion Channel in April.
I intentionally forgo any detailed visual description of the film because I find it all quite hard to describe. Shot on stunning 16mm, Eyimofe brings out the tireless thrill and textured timidness of Lagos. I suggest seeing it for yourself.
Esiri spoke to me while at work for Blacktag, an entertainment platform based in New York that he described as enabling “alternative Black creators to make and tell their stories without any filter or having to pander to any sort of Eurocentric agenda.” Our conversation left me thinking about some of my favorite things—things which, I have also since realized, are simply difficult to define: home, film, Africanness, neorealism, and the fifth floor of Dodge.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: Your Instagram handle is nepahastakenlight. Most Nigerians will probably chuckle or shake their head at that. But for people who might need more context, could you explain the significance of that handle?
Arie Esiri: NEPA is the Nigerian—well, was the Nigerian electrical power authority. I believe that’s what the acronym stands for. But whenever the power or the electricity is cut off, which happens regularly in one day, usually for an extended period of time, that’s something that we used to exclaim in my childhood, growing up: “NEPA has taken light.”
And when I first had to do my email and write an email address—I don’t know how old I was, like 13 or something—for whatever reason, that's what came to me: email@example.com. And it’s the exact number of letters that they allowed you to use at the time. And it stuck. It’s a wonderful reminder of home and a not-so-wonderful reminder of home as well.
The other day someone sent me the Instagram handle “NEPA has brought back light.” And I was quite amused by that.
B&W: What can you say about the state of the Nigerian government right now?
AE: A bit of a letdown, really. I always say in Nigeria, we talk about politics as much as the British talk about the weather. I’m just constantly baffled. We have infinite amounts of resources, I think, to have a fairly functional state. But the powers that be just seem to thrive off the chaos. I think there’s business in it as well. There’s lots of business to be made where things don't work. So yeah, the government is frustratingly as entrepreneurial as the people. And we just kind of need them to just do their jobs, which they don’t.
But beyond that, I think … we’re beginning to understand that it’s something that we’re going to have to try to change as citizens, which is what we were seeing with ENDSARS. I'm just hoping that the politicians will start reckoning with some of the things that they’re putting us through, that they hear us eventually. But it’s a constant plotting.
B&W: Speaking of electricity and fixing things, we can turn to the film, right? We have our protagonist, who’s an engineer. He’s working with wires. He’s trying to fix things constantly. But Eyimofe is also a film about immigration, yet our protagonists never leave their city, let alone their country. It’s centered around Italy and Spain, but it doesn't center Italy and Spain. So I’m curious: Why tell a story about characters who fail to fix? They fail in their mission of leaving Nigeria.
AE: Because I guess that’s life. Part of the ambition to keep everything in the country—and sometimes we refer to the film as an intramigrational story—was to keep the focus on the lives that the people are living and the circumstances that push them out. It was also important to understand—in the context of migrational films—how we are most often seeing these movies made by people that are not from the place, that are particularly interested in the trauma of this journey, which usually happens on the boats or in the detention camps on some border, whether it’s Algeria or on the other side of the Mediterranean, wherever it is. The journey, I think, is what has persisted in the landscape of migrant films. As people that are indigenous to this place, where we have a lot of people that are trying to get out, I think it was important for us to keep everything within the one place and understand that these people are not making these decisions lightly. They’re not just waking up and saying, “Oh, you know, I fancy being in Italy tomorrow. Or Spain.” There are a set of very particular circumstances that push everyone away, but ultimately, they have something to lose by leaving: family, identity, all those sorts of things.
That’s why it was important to keep them there, I think. But also because that’s part of the story. Many people decide not to leave in the end or don’t get to the point of making that perilous journey. Many are fortunate to escape that and find meaning back home and purpose in a way to make do. Many, sacrificing a lot, like Rosa does. Unfortunately, in this story—as it is with many stories—the road that the women walk is a much, much more complicated one for various reasons.
B&W: You mentioned other stories. I’m always curious about what texts—so feel free to mention not just films, but also, mention films—filmmakers are thinking about, consciously or subconsciously, when they’re crafting their own projects.
AE: My twin brother, Chuko, wrote the film. He mentions a lot James Joyce’s The Dubliners. I think for him, that was just sort of the feel of the place. The feel of Dublin in his work, I think, was something that he wanted to emulate filmically, as far as the way he treated Lagos. Just like the relationship to a place. I know that that book was very, very important for him. And he loves Dickens. He’s a really, really big fan of Dickens.
But film-wise, we looked a lot at New Taiwanese cinema. So the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien and particularly Edward Yang. I think of a movie like Taipei Story, which is a very, very pivotal reference for this movie. Again, that’s a film where you are completely immersed in the city through the choice that the filmmaker is making and how he’s staging his scenes. I come out of that movie feeling like I have some understanding of this city that was completely foreign to me in every sense of the word.
I talk a lot about films that give you permission to make other films. I think Ousmane Sembène's Mandabi is that film that sort of helped me see our film. There’s a really beautiful part of the movie, where there’s an exchange of money. And the hands are moving at a slightly slower frame rate to the rest of the film. So it’s like a very mild, slow motion. And that was visual language that I used or I borrowed to speak to—or rather, to elaborate on the various bits in the film where we have people that are doing work, that are engaged in some kind of manual labor. And they’re very hard to find actually. I don't think I’ve said this in any of my interviews, but it’s an easy thing to miss. They’re things like the laundromat that Rosa and Grace visit before Rosa’s date. They prepare these coal irons. And I think that was shot in slow motion. There’s a lady that’s, I think, pounding yam or stirring a big pot of what we call poundo, which is sort of like the powdered version of yam, the floured version that you meld and make into a type of fufu. That happens in slow motion. And there are a few other bits, a few other things that happen in slow motion. That was born from that film. That really, really helped me see our movie, I think, in a real way.
B&W: Absolutely. I wrote down a quote from Wole Soyinka. He said that “the Lagos of today is what preoccupies, agitates, repels, and seduces and from wildly different causes. Lagos is truly a Joseph city, a garment of many colors, textures, and stylists.” How did you capture the wide coalition but also intense colors of Lagos?
AE: Simply just by letting it exist in the frames. A lot of the wide shots that you see in the film or the stuff that takes place in busy market streets or in some of the busier neighborhoods—a lot of that wasn't fully choreographed. My first AD will disagree with that. We definitely had people planted in different places, and we got people to do things again in many instances. But the market scenes, for example. Or, I think the scene where Rosa is walking through the market stalls and trying to sell her perfume.
B&W: Beautiful shot.
AE: Our actor Temi Ami-Williams did that for real. And we were in a balcony somewhere far off in a really long lens, relatively hidden from the crowd. And she was really trying to sell it. And I think towards the end of the thing, someone goes, “How much?!” Someone actually asked her “how much is this thing?” and she just said a price. [She] was like, “2,000.” All of that was a genuine interaction. Someone was genuinely trying to buy the perfume. Our whole thing was to turn up somewhere in Lagos and shoot the scene and not control too much of what was happening in the background. And I hope that helped give a sense of the city, of its rhythms. But then, in the scripting, we carved out quieter moments as well because they do exist in Lagos. I think it’s very easy to go to Lagos and make the place look overly energetic … handhelds, whip pans and all that kind of stuff. We weren’t interested in portraying the scene that way because I don’t think that’s how I experienced it. So that was it really. Not controlling what we couldn’t control and controlling what we could in smaller, more intimate spaces.
B&W: Yeah, I think you definitely see that. There’s something about the film that, like you’re saying, you feel the intensity and the dynamic nature of this space. But you do have a certain stillness of the camera at times. I think that was really neat.
I do want to ask about your time at Columbia, specifically. Someone mentioned to me recently—and I’m not sure how tongue-in-cheek they meant it—but they said that you get your cinematographers from NYU and your directors from Columbia. And you obviously got an MFA in filmmaking from the School of the Arts. But let’s say for an undergraduate at Columbia who is lamenting the lack of technical instruction that they’re receiving in their classes, how do you see the film and media studies, the history, the theory playing into the student’s eventual work with film production itself?
AE: I think at Columbia the program is a little bit more academic than it is at NYU. And you just have to understand whether or not that is going to be useful to you or not.
I had come from a background working on set, so when I was getting ready to go to Columbia, I was already working as a camera trainee and in camera departments and working on the gaffers and that kind of thing. And for me, I think going to film schools was a more intellectual pursuit. For example, our film was a multi-protagonist film. And I studied multi-protagonist structures, which my brother didn't do, right? So in Christina Kallas’ script analysis class, we literally spent weeks looking at various types of multi-protagonist stories, how they are put together on a script level, the general concerns of the mode of filmmaking and in various themes, tropes, that kind of thing. And all of that really informs the way that I gave notes on Chuko’s writing, and it changed the script a good amount, I would say, just having that understanding and having studied that.
I think it’s very, very helpful as well, not to go from film undergrad straight to an MFA. I think it’s always helpful to have some kind of world experience, doing something or anything else. Recently, I’ve been talking about how I feel—feel free to cut me off if I’m rambling too much.
B&W: You’re okay.
AE: I feel like there are filmmakers that understand life. And I think that there are filmmakers that understand movies. And I think it’s better to be a filmmaker that understands something about life as opposed to just being someone that it’s just cinema that you’re doing and you’re just recreating your favorite films or versions of that.
And some people do that successfully, but I think it can be quite a burden to bear when you’re just an undergrad filmmaker and then you’re an MFA in film and it’s just film, film, film, film film. And you're not experiencing what is happening around you or getting a moment to understand how life is rendered in real-time.
B&W: I’ve had similar conversations with film friends lately about that distinction. With certain directors, you can tell that they were trying to make a movie. And other directors, it’s like they were trying to make art, I feel. That was their primary motivation.
Also, you just mentioned Dodge, and yeah, Dodge fifth floor. It’s really a wonderful place.
I get the sense that you and your brother get along well. It’d be hard to make a feature film with someone who you didn't get along with. But I am wondering, were there moments on set when you guys did disagree on things?
AE: I mean, of course, yeah. I mean, there were moments. It’s so funny, I remember doing a short film with him and we argued over whether or not we should show a sandwich in a particular shop. And that was a really funny one because the DP was from NYU. And then the person running sound was from Columbia. And there was this complete divide of, like, schools of thought.
There were very few times on set that we had disagreements. But occasionally, I would go and say something to an actor and the actor would be like, “Oh, but your brother just said something else.” And I'd be like, “He did? Ignore that.” That maybe happened a couple of times.
But for the most part, we have the same references, we love the same films. Chuko showed me the movie that made me decide to start directing. We’re constantly sharing. So it’s mainly fun. And a lot easier to make movies together than not.
B&W: Which film did your brother show you?
AE: Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica.
B&W: That’s one of my favorite films as well. You mentioned in past interviews the importance of Vittorio De Sica and other Italian neorealists. But there is a quote from Bazin, who said, rhetorically, “Is not neorealism, primarily a kind of humanism, and only secondarily a style of filmmaking?” Assuming that you do agree with that, I’m wondering in what ways you hope your filmmaking embodies neorealism as a greater philosophy and ethos?
AE: Embodies neorealism, did you say?
B&W: Yeah. And in philosophy and an ethos, as opposed to just technique. You know—depth of field and long takes.
AE: I think the whole idea is just to create cinema that allows life to unfold in real time before your eyes. I was saying recently in another interview that we actually kept moving away from cinema and coming to real life with certain things. There were certain scenes that were written … very cinematic. I keep using this scene as an example: the mourning scene when, for Mofe, the tragedy happens. And Mofe in mourning—he originally, in the script, was experiencing that on his own. And then it made sense … to have this quiet soliloquy. And it’s dark and moody. And it’s a very interior kind of moment. But it wasn’t true to life. The decision to be in on the experience of this person in this situation in this societal context was way more interesting … than the cinema version of that.
In essence, it’s relying on everything that the culture gives and trying to find some kind of truth to the scenes and … maybe we stay true to the neorealist fabric of making films, which is kind of anti-cinematic in that way. But, of course, you are conscious of the frame and how removing cinema also is full of manipulation, manipulating the image to make this cold thing feel real and lived in. I think that’s the power of these movies. They really take you to a place and you’re lost for an hour, an hour and a half, in a specific world. Asghar Farhadi does that so well in his movies. I saw A Separation when it came out and I remember coming out of that movie and forgetting that it was all in Farsi, that I hadn’t experienced that in my own language. But I fully understood what was happening on a human level. And I think that’s the most important thing. There is a manipulation in that as well. You are still using cinema, you are still using shots, and depth of field or lack of depth of field to get that effect. And I think, yeah, the realist and the neorealist films that achieve that are the most successful.
B&W: That scene in particular, after the tragedy and the family is singing the hymns in that hallway. I watched this movie on a Friday, and then I showed it to my family the next day. It’s one of those moments that feels like you’re holding up a mirror: A moment that you know so well that you haven’t seen on screen before.
You mentioned A Separation and that same filmmaker’s new movie A Hero just came out, so I’m wondering what your favorite 2021 releases were.
AE: I haven’t seen many films this year, unfortunately. I’ve been dying to see Drive My Car, which I will be seeing on Sunday. But I have a funny feeling that that’s going to take the biscuit just from everything I’ve heard. But I’ll be seeing that with my brother, who I haven’t seen in two years since the lockdown. So we’ll be seeing each other in London, and we’ll be going to watch this movie. So I wish you’d asked me this question after that just so I could put it against everything else.
Benedetta, I thought, was crazy. I thought it was a bonkers movie. But you know what? I saw a film that I really—that I loved. It was a movie by Panah Panahi called Hit the Road. That was it. I really enjoyed that. I really enjoyed Macbeth as well. I was oddly inspired by it. I think also just the Coens not doing something together … I think it struck in that way as well. I don't know if he’s ever made one without his brother. So I think it resonated in that way. And I think that I had some kind of special attachment to it for that reason. But also it was just great to see this spectacle, I hadn’t been in the cinema for a while and I just really enjoyed how it was rendered—the staging, you know? I just thought it was superbly directed. I wish I’d given you more titles and movies. That’s what this is telling me—I should have seen more movies.
B&W: I’m excited for you to see Drive My Car. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s insane.
I’m going to end with a Sembène quote.
B&W: He says, “The artist is a mirror. His work reflects and synthesizes the problems, the struggles and the hopes of his people.” So, what are some of the problems, struggles, and hopes that you think today’s generation of African filmmakers are reflecting? How are African filmmakers today being mirrors?
AE: I can’t speak for everyone. All of our situations are so different.
I try to lean on the hope part of that quote, because escaping the problems and the struggles, it’s just very hard.
But this is why other De Sica films like Miracle in Milan are so important to me as well, because I do want to lean a little bit more on fantasy and try to imagine and depict a Nigeria that I would like to see.
I think part of the struggle, again, infrastructurally, just means that making movies back home is hard. That’s what we want to try and change or undo. We just want to remove the barriers that make making films at the scale that we would love to difficult. That’s the main challenge for us right now. It’s like, how do we make it feasible to make work, to keep producing stuff, and to be ambitious in our imaginings of our country? I think that's what we’re maybe up against the most. We have to fight to be able to make the films that we want to make that show our country the way it is and the way we want it to be. I think right now that that's what we are struggling with—being allowed to speak freely through cinema. And in order to do that, we need to be able to dream, and dream big. And to be able to do that we need to have the right things in place. And a government that is working for us and systems that are working for us and allowing us to do that. And everyone benefits, right? Like, we get more stories, we get more money put into that industry. And hopefully, we also get to change the way we see ourselves and others see us, but most importantly, the way we see ourselves.