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'The Milkmaid' Review: Desmond Ovbiagele targets Nigeria's first-ever Oscar

The Milkmaid
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The well known violent attacks, abductions, and terrorist activities by Boko Haram provides the background for the newly released Nigerian film, The Milkmaid. It is the second feature by director and screenwriter Desmond Ovbiagele, whose work as a filmmaker was delayed by a decade while he worked as an investment banker, a career he left in order to follow his passion for film. 

Ovbiagele’s first production, Render to Caesar, was reasonably well-received at film festivals and won the Best Screenplay award from the Nigerian film industry. Ovbiagele described in an interview his compulsion to reveal more about the ongoing attacks and abductions taking place in his homeland, and to use his “privileged position” to ”speak on behalf of those who lack the facility to make themselves heard”. This ambition has resulted in the script for The Milkmaid, which the director chose to film primarily in the local language, Hausa, a decision he felt adds to the film’s authenticity, but which also complicated the filming process and limited his casting choices and, to some extent, his international market. His second feature is, nevertheless, more ambitious than his first, as well as more widely released, and is Nigeria’s official submission to the 2020 Academy Awards.

The Milkmaid is both long and, at times, a bit listless following a leisurely pace throughout, and with extended scenes that could have been trimmed, but also contains genuine, if low-key suspense, moving scenes of violence, and intense interpersonal conflict. The film opens on peaceful activities in rural Nigeria, where a family of dairy farmers are preparing for the wedding of one of their daughters. The happy event is shattered by a violent attack by members of a radical faction, and a young woman, Aisha (novice actress Anthonieta Kalunta), and her sister Zainab (Maryam Booth) are both abducted and taken to the group’s compound. For whatever reason, the group is never named, only referred to as “extremists,” but they are obviously meant to represent a cell of Boko Haram. This is clear from their views and practices, which include superficial piety combined with violence and cruelty, kidnapping women and girls and forcing them into marriages with group members.

It is made still more explicit by a statement over the final credits, which dedicates the film to the memory of two Red Cross aid workers, Hauwa Liman and Saifura Khorsa, who were both abducted and executed by Boko Haram in 2018, “and the thousands of others who have fallen,” identifying Boko Haram as the antagonists even without naming them openly. In fact, one complication of filming demonstrated that the unnamed group was recognised by locals as Boko Haram: at one point, the film crew were nearly lynched, according to the director in a 2020 interview, when residents mistook the costumes and props as evidence that the actors were actual members of the terrorist group, which had attacked a nearby community not long before. 

Aisha is the central character, followed as she endures captivity, manages to escape, then selflessly returns in order to find and recover her sister. The suffering of the female captives is presented clearly and in sympathetic detail, but without hyperbole; their situation is recognised as tragic, but the emphasis is on their stoic endurance rather than solely their pain and humiliation. The extremists, overseen by cell leader Haruna (Ibrahim Jammal), are not presented as exaggerated, one-dimensional villains. They are regarded as wrong, and dangerous, but are allowed to be fully developed individuals whose fundamentalism has led them down an extremely dark path. This approach opens up possibilities that would not be available with a simple battle of good against evil, or predator against victim, and permits surprising developments in the film’s second half. 

The action is slow, but the story is heartfelt, and the ensemble cast presents their parts in a believable way that is a balance of naturalistic and dramatic, scaling up to an intense conclusion as events take unexpected turns in the final act. The gently emotional score by composer Michael Ogunlade enhances the impact of each scene, while the cinematography allows the experiences of the main female characters to remain central even in group scenes of military action or violence. The director often lets the beautiful landscape of rural Nigeria take centre stage, seeming to represent the beauty and hope that lives above and beyond the confines of the cell’s compound. The film even addresses the strange appeal such an extremist group might have for its female members, who are all but property within the cult, but are offered a kind of distinction and glory through their work and sacrifice, which some come to embrace. By contrast, the lives of ordinary civilians are portrayed with affection and warmth, especially when they are imagined nostalgically by the captive Aisha, as a happy memory, or as a focal point to maintain her stability through difficult times. 

As Aisha tries to find ways to reach and help her beloved sister without endangering her own life, the film deals intriguingly with many levels of belief, loyalty, power, and influence taking place among the extremists and their victims. She resorts to any means available, including self-sacrifice and cautious negotiations with the cell’s leader, to achieve her end. Her sister’s changing relationship with the cult members, and with Aisha herself, complicates the rescue attempts and forces Aisha, to examine her own motives and reassess her approach, while continually weighing the risk of each decision she makes. Along with being a remarkable reality-based drama, the film is an intriguing psychological study, as well as an understated tribute to the value and endurance of women under the worst of circumstances.

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