Love for Sale: Sudabeh Mortezai’s “Joy”
In Nigeria, every state is associated with a particular vice. Lagos with its visual, noise, and air pollution, is infamously hostile to the environment. Akwa Ibom is known for giving away children to work in the cities as domestic servants. Edo State has a reputation for being the hub of prostitution. Some of these characterizations may seem unfair, but there is a reason clichés are clichés, right? In the case of Edo, up until 2018, according to the European Union, the state was the source of the highest number of irregular migrants to Europe. Many of these migrants — mostly young girls — through the help of a highly specialized network of traffickers that include family members, middlemen and madams, knowingly or otherwise, arrive in Europe to work as prostitutes. These girls, victims of a failed system, are railroaded into indentured servitude until they can pay back the costs of their movement.
Joy (2018), helmed by Austrian-Iranian Sudabeh Mortezai, is the story of one such victim. It is also an incisive, unsparing look at the various factors — systemic, moral, cultural — that drive these migration trends. Such a broad overview works in this case only because Mortezai personalizes her narrative by using the story of the heroine as a point of entry into a world that punishes the weak and profits from their suffering. She is particularly interested in how women are culpable in this oppressive environment and how victims eventually become oppressors.
Joy (first-timer Anwulika Alphonsus) works the streets in Vienna. Whatever income she makes is split three ways between her daughter who is being minded by a sitter, an increasingly dependent family back home in Nigeria, and her madam (a droll Angela Ekeleme Pius). A veteran of the trade, Joy copes with life on the street by maintaining an air of acceptance and patience until her debt is paid in full. It isn’t a particularly happy life, but it is one that is productive with an end goal in sight. Stirring Joy’s pseudo-normalcy, she is saddled with mentoring Precious (Precious Mariam Sanusi), a sharp-tongued new arrival. According to madam’s non-negotiable terms, Joy must bear the cost every time Precious fails to make her payments. It isn’t long before Joy teeters on the verge of radicalization and comes to question her role within the exploitative system.
Scooped up by Netflix after a surprise victory at last year’s BFI London Film Festival, triumphing over more buzzed about titles like Birds of Passage (2018) and Happy as Lazzaro (2018), Joy is an uncompromising window into a world that exists for many only in the realm of fiction. To get audiences to dive deep into the bleak reality that Joy and her co-travelers are trapped in, Mortezai brings to bear her background as a documentary filmmaker, exposing bitter truths in a matter-of-fact yet sensitive manner. This means that, even though the narrative is arresting, and Joy is nothing less than this even when it takes darker turns, the film possesses a kind of compassionate realism, with close-ups, wide angles, and an absence of music to avoid easy manipulation of emotions.
At a lean 99 minutes, Joy gets down to business, wasting no scenes with superfluous emotion or needless pandering. Like the heroine at its center, Joy takes a no-nonsense approach to its storytelling, one that is empathetic but unsparing about the realities of this world. Joy is no Pretty Woman (1990), and there is no rich John waiting in the wings to whisk its lead away into a more befitting life. The only man who shows some kind of benevolence towards her dangles selfish demands that Joy isn’t prepared to meet. All her life she’s gotten by on her own terms, but this self-sufficient streak isn’t enough to help her when she comes to a crossroads. Should she go to the Austrian police to testify against her madam — Joy knows where many of the bodies are buried — or continue to live in fear of the juju used to ensnare the girls into remaining tight-lipped about whatever horrors they encounter in Europe?
This juju ritual is a strong element of the transcontinental flesh trade, and Joy opens with a bravura sequence that is as true to life as cinema can get. In her native Edo State, just before making the trip to Europe, Precious submits herself for the mandatory ritual that involves numerous chants, the decapitation of a live chicken, and plenty of threats. It’s impressive that Mortezai would go so far as to capture this supposedly sacred ceremony, but the openness that the state has adopted to clamp down on the trafficking rings probably made such a scene possible.
Only last year, Oba Ewuare II, the influential monarch of Edo’s Benin Kingdom, placed an ancient curse on dealers in the human trafficking trade. This curse was a game changer as it also nullified all oaths of secrecy and urged victims of trafficking to speak out, making it easier for perpetrators to be brought to book. Mortezai is obviously fascinated by this, as it is a running theme in Joy. She even juxtaposes this Nigerian tradition with an ancient Austrian Christmas ceremony that Joy and Precious stumble upon while attempting to cross the Austrian-Italian border.
For films like Joy, in which the mood is bleak and the living conditions nearly hopeless, it would be all too easy for even the most well-intentioned of filmmakers to fall back on the familiar misery porn beats. Joy is a harrowing tale, but Mortezai has enough experience and control to approach the material without resorting to exploitative tendencies. She has immersed herself in this world, having reportedly collaborated with actual victims, and her film is all the more authentic for it. Despite the subject matter, there are no naked women cavorting around, neither are there any gratuitous sex scenes.
Whether Mortezai is depicting the bonds that the madam’s girls — huddled together in a shared apartment — develop to survive or the ways in which they sustain their connection to their homes (dancing to afropop music and watching Nigerian soap operas), her gaze is unblinking, highly observant, and invested in reclaiming the dignity of the women whose stories she is custodian of. Her actors, many of whom are appearing on screen for the first time, are either naturalistic or awkward. Alphonsus, in particular, nails the stony, resigned countenance that veterans of the game tend to develop.
The film goes about quietly documenting the perils — both physical and psychological — that the women in these situations go through. Mortezai does not withhold the horror and the violence, but her decision to keep the most traumatic of scenes off camera helps heighten the emotional implications. Mortezai is an intelligent filmmaker who understands economy and has observed enough to know that the deepest scars are of the emotional type, hidden away from view.
Joy offers no easy respite. It isn’t the type of film to make audiences feel good about the world. But it is exactly the kind that quietly demands compassion while holding up a mirror to society. The reflection is harrowing, but looking away is almost impossible.
Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy is now streaming on Netflix.