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by Sudabeh Mortezai

grade: 7.5

Joy shows us reality as it is, without sugarcoating anything, and yet is able to play skilfully with the viewer’s emotions even when (not) showing us the many episodes of violence the girls suffer.

Solemn oaths

Almost nobody knows that even today, in Nigeria, many girls, after being forced by self-styled gurus to take the so-called ‘juju’ oath, become inextricably bound to their exploiters and are therefore forced to pay a huge ‘debt’ in money, which can only be discharged if they start prostituting themselves. Should any of them decide to break this oath, death or madness awaits her. Or so they are made to believe. So it is that every year many women leave Nigeria for Europe to pay off their debt. A reality that is hard to believe and that, for the first time on the big screen, is shown to us by the Austro-Iranian director and documentary filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai in her Joy, which had its world premiere at the 75th Venice Film Festival in the Venice Days section, where it was awarded the Label Europa Cinemas Award and the Hearst Film Award – Best Female Director, as well as being part of the official selection of the Diagonale 2019.

In his second feature film after Macondo (2014), Mortezai tells the story of Joy, a Nigerian mother who works as a prostitute in Vienna, where she hopes to give her little daughter a bright future. Now close to finally paying off her debt, she is entrusted with supervising the young Precious, who has just entered the business and still doesn’t want to accept her new life.

Without forgetting her past as a documentary filmmaker, the director – faithfully following Zavattini’s theory – follows the young protagonist step by step, showing us events exclusively from her point of view. And so shoulder cameras and intense close-ups of Joy and her colleagues dominate the scene from the very first minutes. The mise-en-scène is deliberately and skilfully minimal: there’ s no music, no particular directorial virtuosity, no particular attention is paid to the settings, except for the dingy street where the protagonist usually waits for clients or the apartment where she lives with other girls. Vienna is shown to us as little as possible, with daytime exteriors shot in anonymous streets with identical buildings, reminiscent of prisons.

Sudabeh Mortezai’s film is therefore pure cinema of reality. A film that shows us reality as it is, without sugarcoating anything, but that knows how to play skilfully with the spectator’s emotions even when not showing the many episodes of violence that the girls suffer. Particularly noteworthy is the scene in which the young Precious is raped by her exploiter’s men: the camera decides not to show us the violence, but, fixed on Joy’s face, makes sure that we all hear what is happening in the next room. Just as the Hanekian tradition teaches us.

These are moments which give rise not only to great anguish but also a strong sense of claustrophobia, skilfully accentuated by the particular elliptical structure that the director wanted to give to the film, a sign that the destiny of these young women seems to be irretrievably sealed and that, even once the debt has been paid, nothing really changes. Not even when one decides to report such realities, which exist above all because of the lack of information and the consequent false beliefs that are still so strong today and so widespread throughout Nigeria.

Original title: Joy
Directed by: Sudabeh Mortezai
Country/year: Austria / 2018
Running time: 99’
Genre: drama
Cast: Anwulika Alphonsus, Mariam Sanusi, Angela Ekeleme
Screenplay: Sudabeh Mortezai
Cinematography: Klemens Hufnagl
Produced by: Filmfonds Wien, ORF, Tremens Tonstudio, Oesterreichisches Filminstitut

Info: Joy’s page on the website of the Venice Film Festival