Venice 2018 review: Joy (Sudabeh Mortezai)

Joy (Joy Anwulika Alphonsus) is almost rid of her debt. That does not mean she is safe in any way, not at all; as if coming from Nigeria to Europe was not challenging enough, the real struggle is now managing to stay in Austria instead of being sent back to Africa. The film for which she is the namesake follows her and other African women in simple moments, just having fun or enjoying an ordinary conversation, but make no mistake: these women are forced to work as prostitutes to pay off their debts. A newcomer, Precious (Precious Mariam Sanusi), is assigned to Joy for supervision. In the film’s opening scene we have seen this girl back in her home country in a ritual performed by a juju priest. It is a standard religious ceremony in which women who intend to leave the country have to be submitted to a magic spell cast on them by the priest, and be indebted for the money borrowed for the journey to Europe, thereby already being nudged towards a life of prostitution. If they do not comply, terrible things will happen to them or their family.

Director Sudabeh Mortezai’s documentarist approach frequently puts us in the middle of the action, only to take us out of it when scenes turn grim, choosing to turn to Alphonsus’ expressions to indicate what happens. When Precious is being brutally raped it happens in the background, but the eyes and tears of Joy let us experience the dreadful moment vividly. Her eyes speak a thousand languages. In the rare occasion of a situation in the film not being clear enough, one only has to look at her eyes, her expression, and the way she glances at someone to figure out what is going on.

Newly arrived in Vienna, Precious still wonders at simple things, like lights being on 24/7, even if they still cannot protect her during the nights when she has to satisfy her customers. She does not want this life, understandably, and begs her madam (Angela Ekeleme Pius) for another job, any job. Whatever it takes to take her away from a life of selling her body. The consequence of this request? The aforementioned rape. Yet here emerges one of the strengths of Mortezai’s directorial choices: by not showing or, to be more precise, showing just the right amount, Joy lets us understand much more than it would otherwise. Even if they are never explicitly shown, that does not mean the film is lacking in atrocious sequences, but no matter how terrible the situation they are never gratuitously shown, and have all the more impact for it.

One can look at Joy as just another film about an urgent subject, tackled from the usual standpoint of abuse. In the end there is no statement but just the story of a woman stuck in a diabolical loop, despite the political implications that story has. This haunting sense of no escape is something Mortezai’s storytelling builds one brick after another, without rushing to any conclusion whatsoever. Joy’s parable manages to clarify the difference between living and surviving: one doesn’t even need to be that decent a person in order to get how deep this difference can be.