When the Nigerian official selection committee sat down to select the Nigerian candidate for the 2021 Oscars last December, the jury overwhelmingly voted for Desmond Ovbiagele’s film The Milkmaid on sex trafficking drama Oloture and the film toast Eyimofe.
Unlike Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart who the Academy disqualified from the international feature film category last year for having English as the primary script language, The Milkmaid fulfills the requirement for a predominantly non-English dialogue track. It expresses authenticity with Hausa, Fulfulde and Arabic, three languages hermetically spoken throughout the film.
The film follows the story of two sisters, Aisha (Anthonieta Kalunta) and Zainab (Maryam Booth), who split up when insurgents attack their village. Aisha is determined to save Zainab from her captors and retraces her fate in an enemy camp, where she is enslaved and treated inhumanely.
A second feature by Ovbiagele after her debut in the 2014 crime thriller Return to Caesar, The Milkmaid is an incredibly superior entry into Nollywood’s Boko Haram-themed cinema.
The genre is relatively new, inspired by the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria, which began its deadly uprising in 2009 and claimed the lives of over 37,000 people and displaced 2.5 million people. Most of these movies aren’t made to be box office hits as they typically employ largely unknown actors, so they sail under the radar.
But with Joel Kachi Benson’s Daughters of Chibok winning a Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and Netflix picking up Adekunle Adejuyigbe’s The Delivery Boy a year later, the genre is slowly occupying an expanding space in the public imagination. and sparked conversations about violence in society.
Tackling such delicate issues as religious extremism and violence, The Milkmaid has faced censorship at home. The Nigerian Film and Video Censors Council (NFVCB), the government agency mandated to regulate the creation, distribution and broadcast of films and video products by rating them, denied the classification of the films because they ‘he felt he portrayed Islam as a catalyst for religious extremism. .
To obtain a rating for public screening in Nigeria, 24 minutes of footage was cut from the director’s original version. “We had to remove everything – costume, dialogue, language that was an authentic portrayal of a particular religion, even though nothing in the film indicates that religion was directly responsible for the violence,” Ovbiagele said in an interview with December 2020.
Censorship of the Milkmaid was to be expected, given the NFVCB’s history of choking artistic freedom and paranoia that films can threaten national unity. The film does not suggest that Islam inspires extremism, nor does it glorify terrorists and whatever their motives. Rather, it unearths the traumatic experiences of women and girls in a world ravaged by insurgency. Although the film has not yet been released widely, the response from members of the Muslim community who have seen it in private sessions has been positive.
Due to censorship at home, The Milkmaid turned to Cameroon and Zimbabwe for its theatrical release in November, then toured with its tapering off in select Nigerian theaters afterwards. Attracting local buzz, the film won last year’s Africa Movie Academy Awards with eight nominations and four awards, including Best Picture.
For the Oscars, Ovbiagele sent in the original version of the film, which contains all the elements of a potential winner: a compelling story, gripping actor performances, and masterful cinematography.
Through Ovbiagele’s deft handling of the camera, audiences can see how beauty intertwines with violence, creating a stunning artistic patchwork. This visual language is defined by the crisp cinematography of Yinka Edwards whose technical details focus not only on landscapes, but also in interpersonal spaces.
At the heart of this is a feminine understanding of extremism and its fallout – the abduction of women and girls, violence and slavery.
There is something particularly auspicious about The Milkmaid’s Oscar campaign imprint. But will this appeal to the Academy?
Besides its obvious artistic merit, The Milkmaid’s fate at the Oscars will be determined by how Academy voters – representing the American public – view anti-terrorism messages almost 20 years after the start of the “war on terror”. American.
Like Nollywood, Hollywood has also experienced a boom in the production of films inspired by themes of extremism and insurgency. A few have even reached the Oscars and won.
The genre has successfully propelled the U.S. government’s narrative of its forces combating foreign terrorism and restoring stability to distant conflict-torn regions, and has done little to illuminate the dire consequences of anti-imperialism. American terrorist.
Although it does not address the international aspect of the Boko Haram insurgency, The Milkmaid fits well into this dominant American discourse on terrorism. His story is said to fuel the self-founded contempt of American viewers for foreign terrorist groups and is likely to be well received. Whether that’s what the Academy will be looking for in this year’s international feature film category remains to be seen.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.