Tens of thousands of young Nigerian girls and women leave their country every year with sincere hopes of starting a brand-new life in Europe where they believe they will be met with ample job and educational opportunities to provide for their families. That is what they are often told by “recruiters” in their home states who seek out vulnerable girls (sometimes as young as ten) and women to leave for Europe. Unfortunately, the promises made to them by human traffickers are empty promises. In reality, four out of every five Nigerian girls and women who survive the long, harrowing journey to Europe will end up in the sex trade.
We often read about these stories in the news, but cannot adequately understand the harsh lives these girls and women endure at the hands of their traffickers. Essentially held in modern slavery, the women and girls have a debt placed upon them that they must pay off by prostituting themselves or else face dire consequences, sometimes fatal. Not only are they faced with threats by their Nigerian madams, they are also exploited in the streets where they are susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases, rapes, and physical violence. Wanting to tell these stories, Austrian filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai wrote and directed Joy, an award-winning drama that shows the harsh and complex realities of these women and girls’ lives as prostitutes.
Joy follows the story of a woman whose namesake is the film’s title. Joy has almost paid off her debt to the madam having worked in the streets for years servicing multiple Johns per night. She also has her regulars who often give her money beyond her sex work that she unceasingly wires back to her family back home.
Now also a mother who rarely sees her daughter, Joy is tasked by the madam to take a young, naive girl, Precious, under her wing since she has been in Europe for only a week. Joy shows how Precious is ruthlessly broken into the sex trafficking system and how she eventually conforms to the rules like thousands of young girls before her. At times the movie can be difficult to watch, but the main arch of the film is so brilliant and telling that the periphery scenes melt into the background while still giving context to the story. Sudabeh Mortezai also reveals how even with the best intentions women who want to blow the whistle and escape the sex trade often cannot because of the dire consequences that could happen as a result.
As a woman filmmaker, Sudabeh Mortezai ensures Joy is well balanced with the layered dimensions of each woman’s life without devolving into a movie that simply shows prostitution and Johns throughout. Now that news and stories about sex trafficking out of Nigeria like Joy have reached somewhat of a turning point through awareness and arrests, there is still much to do to keep Nigerian women and girls at home. In fact, Nigeria recently launched a campaign called Not for Sale that encourages women and girls to better their lives at home instead of setting their sights on Europe.
While focusing on a devastating topic, Sudabeh Mortezai ‘s brings her viewers directly into the lives of each woman in the documentary-style drama and exposes woman on woman sexual exploitation and the deep challenges facing Nigerian women every day who have to pay off their debts, provide for their family, face racial and societal prejudices in Europe and cultural stigmas if they return home.