There are a lot of echoes in Joy, as Nigerian women with different degrees of authority and experience as part of an international prostitution ring evoke their histories as sex workers and speculate on their uncertain futures. Often these echoes are evoked with simple questions – “what did you think you were getting into?”, “what are you going to do now?” – or quietly uneasy images, like a recently brutalized new hire partying with the other women of the house in a moment of real happiness that’s also her first sign of total assimilation into this life. The story of a Nigerian woman living in Germany as a sex worker under the thumb of so many systematic and individual forces, Joy is able to root itself in this story while casting its eye towards the seemingly endless forces that keep this migrational sex trafficking ring in business. Without ever being heavy-handed, even in its most brutal sequences, these and other instances frequently make the audience wonder how often scenes like these have played out. How long ago was the woman mentoring this new hire in her position? How long ago was the madame in either of their roles? In what ways are these women participating in and perpetuating this economy of sex trafficking, and how many other stories like theirs are being played out as we speak?
What’s stunning about how Joy confronts these questions is its ability to suggest an overlap in its character’s experiences without reducing them to parables or feinting towards easy answers. Joy (Anwulika Alphonus) does not see Precious (Mariam Sanusi) as a young version of herself she must save or as a surrogate daughter to care for. Nor does Precious see Joy or anyone else as a surrogate mother or defender. Nor does the madame (Angela Ekeleme) show any sympathy for her captive charges, even as she reminds them that she was once in their position, in a way meant to convey pacification more than empathy. Tasked with helping this girl learn how to sell herself or take on her debt just as she is on the cusp of paying off her own, Joy gives Precious advice on how to protect herself physically and psychologically but tells her upfront they are not friends and should not trust each other. Sudabeh Mortezai’s direction holds true to this declaration, refusing to make the film more melodramatically or sensationally appealing even as the script and actors show a tentative bond between the two. Instead, her tone is keyed to Joy’s observant, pragmatic, somewhat jaded perspective, an outlook we quickly realize partially functions as a coping mechanism but is also deep at the core of who this woman is.
Joy’s sense of pragmatism also holds to its relationship to time. Backstory is omitted almost entirely, and the narrative skips forward at unexpected intervals. We’re never sure how much time has passed, or how long anyone has been here, in a way reminiscent of 12 Years a Slave’s depiction of years-long purgatory by removing all sense of time passing. All we have to orient ourselves is what Klemens Hufnagl’s grounded, unsensational photography and Oliver Neumann’s vigilant editing shows us, finding images that convey the ironies and implications of this story in a way that removes the need for dialogue scenes to share the same information. We get no moment where Precious “officially” becomes part of the household, she just gets a new outfit and a new attitude (as much a defense mechanism as Joy’s). Suddenly it feels like she’s always been there, and we wonder how different this process of assimilation has been for the other women in the house. Joy and Precious enter a café in time to watch a Christian new year’s celebration, where St. Nicholas promises a clean slate for those who commit to renew themselves and forgo their sins with the new year, and the whole thing feels as hokey as the Juju ceremony that opens the film, as a dead-eyed Precious pledges her loyalty to her family and country before a priest who promises her safety as long as she doesn’t call the cops. An entire wall of his home is covered in the totems of girls who have been frightened into taken this oath before her, something we see as soon as she adds hers to his collection.
Ultimately, what the film ultimately achieves in making its characters so stuck in their situations while constantly evoking the forces that are trapping them, is the ability to tell its story on personal and systematic levels without being reductive. Joy is not a stand-in for an idea about the hardened women who have survived being embroiled in an international sex trade, yet Mortezai forces us to comprehend just how many women have walked in her shoes, let alone how many are actively as trapped as she is, and how many will be. Similarly, Precious is not an embodiment of corrupted youth or the madame a figure of inhuman evil. Everyone is working for their own interests, but those interests are complicated by the roles they play in a system much bigger than they are. Portraying the direct overseer of these characters as one of many Nigerian women who has chosen entrenched herself in this economy after paying off her own debt further removes any sense of solidarity in the film, yet it remains clear through the men who hire them that they’re all in service to the appetite of white, imperial patriarchy, even in corners that should ostensibly be fighting to stop this. Joy keeps showing new dimensions of these appetites, and the cycles of abuse and entrapment that require so many young girls to be thrown into its maw. At certain intervals we see the madame tell her charges “You knew what you were getting into.” as an implicit justification for their treatment, and Joy neither validates nor disputes the madame’s accusation, keeping the reasons anyone got here a secret while pointedly disputing that anyone deserves to endure these abuses.
A lot of the press around Joy has rightly credited it for being a tough sit, perhaps too much at the expense of how many ideas it has on its mind. For my money, the film is so upsetting in part because it’s able to see this migrational sex trade so completely and so thoughtfully, rather than milking its story for maximum bathos by being as brutal as possible. Mortezai’s directorial insight is remarkable, as is the level of restraint and conviction Alphonus brings to the titular role. The two have clearly worked hard to keep Joy a secretive yet compelling presence, making sure not to turn her into a cipher even as she remains a distant figure. So much of the film rests on watching Joy think on her feet and act as though she’s everything figured out, even as she’s contemplating multiple paths to move forward and trying not to let the little she’s got slide out from under her. Her apparent candor suits the film’s speculative tone, allowing the actress to quickly and authoritatively stand by Joy’s decisions in moments where another performer would emphasize indecisiveness, or make the choice a more obviously difficult one to make. Similarly, the moments where Joy is openly taken by surprise are all the more impactful for how much she’s seemed in control in other high-stakes scenarios. The film simply wouldn’t work if both of them weren’t so smart about what we should and shouldn’t know about Joy and the world she’s operating in.