Throughout the 30th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite feature films on this year's festival slate. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to claim your tickets.
Immigrant stories have long been a fruitful subject for international arthouse dramas, such that the phrase itself – “immigrant story” – carries a set of expectations vis-à-vis plot. Whether the protagonist’s physical journey is lawful or illicit, it will likely be studded with roadblocks, both literal and figurative. Once they arrive in their new home, there will be a fraught period of acclimation, confrontations with prejudice, and, eventually, a grappling with long-term assimilation.
The new Nigerian feature Eyimofe (This Is My Desire) rethinks these middlebrow storytelling tropes by posing a simple but radical question: What if the immigrant never reached their destination? Indeed, what if they never even made it out the proverbial front door? In their astoundingly confident feature debut, sibling directors Arie and Chuko Esiri (“Goose”, “Besida”) tweak expectations straightaway, naming the two chapters of their bisected film “Spain” and “Italy” – references to the never-glimpsed destinations that haunt the increasingly elusive dreams of their dual hard-luck protagonists.
The first of these characters is Mofe (Jude Akuwudike), an electrician who spends his days battling the snarled serpents’ nests that are his employer’s sub-standard junction boxes. He also appears to work nights as a security guard at an athletic club, since every character with ambitions to settle in Europe is obliged to hold down multiple jobs. Mofe is closer than he’s ever been to fleeing Lagos: He has recently secured an expertly forged Spanish passport and other travel papers, and his younger sister, Precious (Uzamere Omoye), has promised to pay for his work visa. Abruptly, however, a senseless tragedy slices its way into Mofe’s well-laid plans. This one, terrible event sparks an almost absurdly bleak cascade of personal, professional, and financial disasters that jeopardize his chance to build a better life overseas – a dream that starts to look foolishly myopic in retrospect.
The latter half of the film shifts focus to Rosa (Temiloluwa Ami-Williams), a part-time hairdresser and bartender who supports her pregnant adolescent sister, Grace (Cynthia Ebijie). Rosa is diligently squirreling away her crumpled Nairas and making plans for her and Grace’s escape to Italy. Her predicament might be less farcically catastrophic than Mofe’s, but Rosa is plagued by the distinct perils of womanhood. Whereas his plight often feels devastatingly lonely, she is constantly fending off a procession of male pests: an older landlord who pathetically beseeches her for romantic attention; a wealthy American who warily courts a more respectable form of quid pro quo; even random passersby who see an impromptu Instagram photo as an opportunity for harassment. It’s Grace who is making the deepest sacrifice, however, having promised her unborn child to a kind of human trafficking soothsayer in exchange for help in navigating the red tape of emigration.
Rosa’s and Mofe’s stories overlap at the margins – they appear to live in the same building – but Eyimofe is for most purposes a diptych. By presenting these two tales alongside one another, the Esiris highlight their protagonists’ similarly far-flung aspirations and contrast their differing circumstances. Mofe is a modest, steady man by nature, but the indignities he suffers – especially a Kafka-esque morass of mounting debts and bureaucratic busywork – inevitably push him to the breaking point. When he eventually explodes in grief and anger, it only deepens his troubles. There is a whiff of Job-like perversity to Mofe’s woes, as he is continually outflanked by the more venal people that surround him. The real villain, however, is the crushing wheel of capitalism and the way it manifests in a former colonial state, where everyone but the elites and the grifters seems to suffer.
Rosa is a slightly savvier figure, keenly aware of her potential power (and terrifying vulnerability) as a beautiful young woman in a patriarchal world. On one level or another, she will always be seen as a commodity: a potential wife, a sexual conquest, or just a worker to be scolded when she dares to dawdle for even a second. Rosa sports a new outfit and hairstyle in virtually every scene, underlining the necessity of reconfiguring and repackaging herself according to the desires of others. At one point, she asks an American admirer to buy her a new smartphone, but her self-interest is frustrated by a nagging self-awareness. Does she want to be That Kind of Woman? The kind who will bat her eyes and tell little white lies and acquiesce to all sorts of things to obtain financial security? Then again, almost any price seems reasonable if it can carry her and Grace across the sea and into a brighter future.
It’s this marvelous sensitivity to the complex forces that propel people to settle far from home that most clearly distinguishes Eyimofe from more conventional immigrant stories. Here, the Esiris reveal that they are more interested in the why than in the how. By examining all the insidious, interlocking factors that compel an individual to remain, they illustrate why one would want to leave in the first place. What’s more, they demonstrate that sometimes staying put, making do, and rethinking one’s surroundings can be just as courageous as sailing for a distant shore.