You have to forgive me if this review is a tad personal. Sometimes a film comes along and hits a raw, emotional nerve, speaking truthfully and profoundly on its subject matter. Sometimes it can’t be helped, especially when its elevates beyond the typical ‘film-spiel talk’ of direction, cinematography, production and sound. If my analysis of BlacKkKlansman or my fortnight reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale S2 is anything to go by, it was the self-recognised statement that my reviews couldn’t remain in the usual framework of critic objectivity and detachment. Just like its subject matter, the reviews end up being an honest and authentic gateway that acknowledges its desired impact.
Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy is no exception to that rule.
As a British born Nigerian, Joy extraordinarily encapsulates the struggle and cultural dichotomy of Nigerian attitudes. By basing the story on immigration and the uneasy documentation of sex trafficking in Europe, Joy is a powerful, courageous and harrowing account that strikes at the heart of the issue with a necessary and reflective poignancy that is worthy of my highest recommendation.
To understand Nigerian culture, think of it in this respect. If a white person is criminalised, that person is treated as an individual – the epitome of a ‘lone wolf’ ideology. Flip that concept onto the black race and the entire community is mischaracterized as if to say, ‘if one person did it, then we’re all guilty.’ Nigerians (and I’m sure it is the same within every ethnic culture) seem to carry the entire nation, and therefore no matter what we do in our lives or our economic circumstances, we have to look after our people. It carries the commonly assumed misconception that living outside of the country must mean your life is inherently better, in contrast to others living in a poverty-stricken nation faced with fears of corruption and manipulation. It’s an uncomfortable analogy to wrestle with, especially as there’s an unspoken yet translatable message between traditions vs. modernity. But when Joy (played superbly by Anwulika Alphonsus) breaks it all down, it really is ‘survival of the fittest.’
It’s a reality brought dangerously close to home. Sudabeh Mortezai’s documentary-style direction accurately reflects that internalised struggle. It’s not necessarily a positive depiction of a country blessed with a natural, energetic and colourful vibrancy. It’s a nation positively looking towards the future. But unlike some Nollywood films which have always been subjected to parody for its cheap production or Hollywood’s lazy depiction of African countries as savage and war-torn or including a ‘one-size fits all’ warlord general, Joy feels like a class above. It empathetically points out the continuous struggle our world faces and how it still hasn’t found a legitimate answer to solving it.
Joy is a visceral experience right from the outset. In amidst of the confusion, the film begins with a juju ceremony for Precious (Mariam Sanusi) before her perilous journey across the ocean to start her new life abroad in Vienna, Austria. After searching for its focal character (which consequently means a delayed start to the film), the film re-clarifies the situation with a tragic and sickening realisation of the wickedness of others and how they make an example of someone. Joy (as a fellow native and illegal immigrant) is assigned to coach Precious, teaching the teenager how to survive on the streets (dressing provocatively for example) but most importantly, paying her way as a prostitute towards her madame (Angela Ekeleme) and her underground business.
You can immediately recognise from Mortezai’s application that it was built on a well-researched foundation of authentic creditability. You can empathetically feel for Joy and Precious’ journey, knowing they represent someone’s story about immigration, life as a sex worker and its hazardous dangers involving rape, sexual assault or basic medical care. It’s the continuous admission of the false pretences young girls and women endure, sold on a lie of going abroad for a so-called better life, only to end up in the never-ending network of organised prostitution rings. They are forced to grow up fast, treated like produce commodities within its horrific and systemic cycle where there is already a debt to pay to gain freedom. When that point is re-enforced by the cultural and idiosyncratic beliefs (taking into account Joy and Precious’ devout following of their juju ceremonies and its consequences), Joy is an articulate account on modern-day slavery, illustrating the physical as well as the mental trappings that are stigmatised, deep-rooted and openly subjugated to abuse.
It’s that lack of cultural awareness and misunderstanding that affects Joy’s journey. Her enamoured boyfriend wants to buy her freedom so they can live together along with Joy’s daughter. When Joy receives news about her family struggles back in Nigeria, suddenly the desperate nature of her work starts to hit home. When she refuses his generous offer and suggests the money to be redirected to pay for the medical bills, he breaks up with her, noting that there’s always “something” with her. There is always a “story” he yells, and yet to a Nigerian, that is our burden which only highlights the boyfriend’s absence of sympathy in his fantasied dreamland concoction he had envisioned. At the same time, the situation is not without its contradictions as a failure to realise the gravity of their work. Even money sent back with good intentions is shown off with a lack of gratefulness or appreciation. Precious’ family talk about her job abroad as “not hard” and that she should “sleep with more men” in an accusatory tone as to why they didn’t receive their latest monetary transaction. Joy doesn’t escape this either with her earned money sent to Nigeria for the misguided, short-term appearance and extravagance of wealth instead of rising out of the poverty with much-needed and substantial applications.
Alphonsus’ magnetic performance remarkably delves into the soulful and eloquent heartbreak within Joy. She lets the deafening, ambient silence do most of her talking, allowing the images to ‘paint a thousand words’ on her emotional dilemmas and solemn resolve. She knows she is close to own target of freedom yet forcefully complicit in maintaining the system, even at the risk of her own life or the increased debt with the Madame. Even when Joy does the right thing, it’s met with no guarantees from the authorities.
As much as Joy is disturbing in its exploit, it expresses the powerlessness of women and why victims find it difficult to bring their accounts to the surface. Staying silent automatically plays into the ignorance of our realities. Bravely speaking up and the claim is either ignored or dismissed by the governed system. One has to effectively ask the question how can you break a tumultuous cycle where there is no power to stop it or protect those involved?
Where Joy deserves its praise is in its imperfect and unresolved conclusion, knowing full well it doesn’t merit a ‘Hollywood ending’. It nightmarishly establishes the continuous fight of survival and the plight of young women as a global issue which deserves attention. Joy skillfully adds to the debate.
There’s no escaping its difficulty – Joy necessarily attacks the fragility of our senses and reality. But as an informed piece of work that refuses to turn a blind eye, raises a clear and conscionable awareness of the long road ahead in eradicating this problem.
JOY is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2018. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details.