Two only glancingly connected stories of street-level life in Lagos form the ostensible backbone of “This Is My Desire,” the engaging, earnest, loose-limbed debut feature from Nigerian twin-brother directors Arie and Chuko Esiri. But the shape of those lives is vaguely similar. Both characters begin their chapters not just dreaming of escaping the everyday grind of life in their nation’s largest, most populous city, but taking firm, expensive steps toward achieving that goal: buying passports, saving for visas, making dodgy deals for documentation with shady brokers. And still, it is a goal that never seems quite within their grasp, and not just because of the logistics. It’s almost as though Lagos itself intervenes — just as it does in almost every frame of DP Arseni Khachaturan’s textural, colorful 35mm photography — and conspires with fate to pull them back into an embrace that is by turns comfortingly familiar and callously indifferent.
Mofe (an acutely sympathetic Jude Akuwudike) wants to go to Spain. So much so that on the passport he has just received, he has registered his name as “Sanchez,” which amuses his co-workers at the rundown workshop in which he works as a repairman, endlessly quick-fixing broken-down machines and rewiring busted fuses. By night he fixes things too (everyone here seems to work several casual jobs) at a little stall piled high with cheap electronics, or around the house he shares with his sister and her children. Then a tragedy occurs, and he is suddenly beset with new worries. In addition to grief and guilt, there are expenses that Mofe can ill afford, which prompts him to visit his estranged father for help.
In another film, with a more deterministic narrative agenda, this catastrophic run of ill fortune would become the focus, perhaps cuing some sort of psychological breakdown. But “This Is My Desire,” has a different, messier but more generous remit, more attuned to the smaller rhythms of life-going-on than the grand dramatics of death. Or, indeed, birth: In the second storyline, we follow Rosa (quietly impressive newcomer Temi Ami-Williams), an attractive hairdresser and bartender who is also caretaker to her school-age sister Grace (Cynthia Ebijie), who is pregnant. We never learn about the father of the baby, but the ticking clock of pregnancy does seem to light a fire under Rosa’s desire to get them both to Italy, to which end she makes a Faustian pact with unscrupulous broker Mama Esther (a terrific cameo by Nigerian comedian Chioma Omeruah).
But even that business takes a backseat to Rosa’s everyday struggles, pleasures and compromises, represented by her romantic options: pushy but not unkind older landlord Mr Vincent (Toyin Oshinaike) who carries a mile-high torch for her; and slick American expat Peter (Jacob Alexander) who gives her a taste of the high life but, egged on by friends in his more affluent Lagosian social circle, begins to suspect she’s only with him for money.
Two strangers not leaving a city: It is a slender enough thread around which to build a film, and does not quite justify the near-two-hour runtime here. But though the story could be tighter, tenser, and at times the filmmaking can feel a little naive, the sashaying pace gives the Esiris time to establish their pleasantly offbeat rhythm. There’s time to take in the ceaseless stream of sales patter that comes from the streetside tailor Mofe hires to make him a new workcoat. Time for the bustle of the hair salon where Rosa, whose own hairstyle changes almost daily, washes and braids and unbraids. Time for Grace to dress up in her sister’s sparkly mini with her hijabi best friend and get hit on by passing ogling men. Time to attune to the cadences of the language — English peppered with patois words and phrases — and to hear the hopeful music in names like Wisdom, Blessing, Precious.
Nigeria is home to a thriving film industry which puts out around a thousand films a year and in terms of production solely, outstrips Hollywood by some margin. But relatively few of those more commercially minded movies, which are often shot in matter of days on very low budgets, tend to travel far out of Africa, or to get a great deal of international arthouse attention (the highest profile title of 2020, “Lionheart” was disqualified from International Oscar contention due to being in Nigeria’s official language, English). This film feels like a different proposition, a production largely independent of Nollywood structures and genres, made to showcase a grounded, realist view of modern Nigeria that neither exoticizes nor denigrates. As a tale of everyday life, “This is My Desire” is a low-key charmer, but it really delivers as a clear-eyed portrait of a vibrant city, informed by the unfakeable love and well-earned exasperation of two talented native sons.