With her powerful sophomore feature, Austrian-Iranian filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai doesn’t so much present a view of the modern sex slave trade as fully immerse the viewer in the bitter experiences of two Nigerian women forced into European prostitution. Joy effectively explores the devastating traps of abuse and extortion without ever becoming exploitative itself.
The film’s opening sequence thrusts us into a traditional Nigerian juju ritual, a witchdoctor guiding teenager Precious (newcomer Precious Mariam Sanusi) through a chicken’s blood-soaked ceremony to prepare her for her upcoming journey to Europe. While it may initially sound harmless, even protective — “No man will harm me!” she is encouraged to shout — it transpires that Precious is traveling to Austria to work in the sex trade in order to support her family back home.
When next we see her, she is working the streets of Vienna with Joy an older woman who has been charged with helping Precious learn the ropes. That both women do not want to be there is immediately obvious; in Precious’s embryonic posture as she sits, hoping to make herself invisible to the passing cars, and in Joy’s face, set hard as she attempts to entice the next customer, a racial slur from a passerby failing even to register.
Indeed, the painful irony of the film’s title intensifies with each passing frame, as Precious and Joy find themselves trapped in a situation from which there’s little chance of escape. Not only must they make enough money to send back home, but they are also in debt to Madame (Angela Ekeleme Pius) and must pay back every penny with interest before they receive the forged papers which will allow them to settle in Europe. The violent power wielded by the acerbic Madame — and her two male colleagues — is shown in a harrowing but well-handled early scene involving the punishment of a smart-mouthed Precious.
Indeed, that these women are victims of circumstances way beyond their control is never in any doubt. Even those who flirt with the idea of testifying against Madame are given no guarantee of asylum by the Austrian authorities and, it’s made clear, going back to Nigeria is no better option. That the women are all terrified of being struck by the juju curse if they step out of line is just another means of control.
While the trauma may be unrelenting, and come from all sides — even family back home in Nigeria add to Joy’s woes, demanding money for a non-existent operation — there are occasional shafts of light here. A rowdy church service, in which Joy and Precious worship while dressed in resplendent clothes a world away from their degrading work uniform, is a particular moment of warmth.
Despite everything, Joy determinedly clings to an ember of hope. We see her visiting her young daughter, working hard to pay off her debts and make a life for them both. In taking Precious under her wing, there is a flicker of compassion — “Don’t look at the faces, look at the money,” she advises — but, ultimately, it’s all about individual survival; if Precious doesn’t bring in enough cash, then Joy will have to pay her way.