Movies 16 October 2018 | 13:15

LFF review: ‘Joy’ reveals the brutal, inhuman world of modern-day slavery

16 October 2018 13:15

Don’t let the title mislead you, there’s little happiness to be found in Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy. Instead, the film takes its name from its central protagonist, a Nigerian woman (the captivating Joy Alphonsus in her on-screen debut) who’s an undocumented sex worker in Austria. Joy lives in an overcrowded, shabby apartment with a group of other women, all of whom are working for the same ‘Madame’ (a chilling Angela Ekeleme) trying to pay off the ‘debt’ they owe her for their illegal passage to Europe.

Mortezai’s film is a bleak but powerful portrait of the modern-day slave trade. These women are trapped on all sides. Without passports they can’t go anywhere else, plus their families back home are putting pressure on them to send them money. There’s also the threat of bad juju: if they misbehave here in Europe, someone they love in Nigeria will suffer as punishment. The opening scene of the film shows Madame’s – who likes her girls to call her ‘mother’ – newest recruit, a teenager called Precious (Mariam Sanusi, equal parts sulky adolescent pouter and frightened child), undergoing a chicken blood-soaked ceremony before she leaves her village. ‘No man will harm me,’ she chants as part of the magic that’s supposed to protect her; it’s a hollow cry that echoes through the rest of the film, especially an early episode when she’s gang raped into submission, all at Madame’s cold command.

It’s a harrowing scene, but Mortezai treads carefully. There’s no revelling in the violence. We hear what’s happening, but we don’t see it. Like the other women in the room, each biting their tongue, unable to say or do anything – they’ve most likely endured the same in the past – Mortezai forces her audience to feel a similar helplessness. She strikes this delicate balance throughout the film; even during its most upsetting episodes we never feel like we’re drifting into the territory of voyeurism.

The dialogue is sparse. People speak only when they need to, there’s no energy for small talk or gossip amongst friends. Mortezai admirably avoids any temptation to give in to such sentimentality. We see rare moments of camaraderie between the women – heckling at the screen while watching a Nigerian TV show together, but all joviality vanishes when Madame enters the room; or dancing together one evening at home – but these are memorable precisely because they’re so few and far between. The same goes for the scenes in which Joy interacts with people in the wider world. The ease with which ordinary life goes on around her only reveals just how isolated she and the other women are. Mortezai doesn’t need to have Joy vocalise this, it’s all there on the screen in front of us.

Fundamentally, this is a dog eat dog world, it’s ‘survival of the fittest’ Joy explains to Precious. The more experienced woman can’t help the younger one out; she can’t take her under her wing, or give her a break. Everyone here must stand on their own two feet – the most Joy can do is point Precious in the direction of the right pair of towering heels for the job.

Alphonsus gives an outstanding performance. When a scene demands it, she can convey the most complex mixture of emotions by means of facial expressions alone, in particular, there’s a world of meaning in her eyes. Most of the time though, there’s a stoniness to both her face and the way she carries herself. Keeping going is her only option, but to celebrate this perseverance seems somehow cruel. She’s a woman all out of options, caught in a brutal, inhuman world.