by Kaleem Aftab
- VENICE 2018: The second film by Sudabeh Mortezai is a provocative unique and feminine take on human trafficking
Joy [+see also:
interview: Sudabeh Mortezai
film profile], the winner of Europa Cinemas Label’s award for Best European Film in the Giornate degli Autori section of the Venice Film Festival is a precise and smartly-edited account of a Nigerian girl’s experience in Europe that takes her from her village to years living as a prostitute in Austria. The film is particularly impressive thanks to its concentration on the female gaze and the empowerment of its female characters.
Even in the film’s most brutal moments, director Sudabeh Mortezai keeps her perspective on women. The German-born director grew up in Tehran and Vienna and her understanding of transient lives comes to the fore in this film, which strives to celebrate the life of Joy, despite all the pitfalls and suffering. It’s her second feature film after her 2014 debut Macondo [+see also:
interview: Sudabeh Mortezai
film profile], which was set in the Chechen refugee community and won the Vienna Film Award at the Viennale. This time around the director has chosen to focus on the lives of Nigerian women in Austria paying off their debt to the Madame who brought them over from their homeland to the promised land of Europe.
Much of the film’s strength lies in Mortezai’s empowerment of the story by making the women victims of circumstance rather than aggression. The first scene shows a teenage girl partaking in a ceremonial occasion before leaving Africa. It’s only much later in the film that the true significance of this scene is revealed. After the opening credit sequence, we jump to Vienna where Joy is streetwalking. It’s the beginning of an incredible performance by Joy Anwulkika Alphonsus that will challenge the audience’s notions of victimhood and ownership.
Mortezai turns this human trafficking story on its head, simply by showing that these young girls are aware that they are going into prostitution. They see it as their only route into Europe. It’s left ambiguous who is to blame for this, and their arrival journey is not part of this story. Indeed, editor Oliver Neumann does a great job ensuring that the time jumps include sufficient information to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. From arriving in Africa, to Joy’s sister Precious (Precious Mariam Sanusi) being coerced into accepting that there is no escaping from this group until their debt is paid off. Hers is €60,000. Madame, played by Angela Ekelemen Pius, uses a mixture of superstition, manipulation and coercion to maintain control. She does everything by the book, but it helps when she writes the rules. We see the ways in which Joy becomes an aggressor herself when she’s made responsible for her younger sister and the film is given an extra layer when Joy talks to an Austrian counsellor in scenes that show the coercive nature of European states. It’s a powerful film.
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