Writer-director Sudabeh Mortezai’s exploration of Nigerian sex workers in Vienna is an inevitably tough watch, bereft almost entirely of what the title suggests. Although her handling of such sensitive issues is too cautious, Mortezai’s work impressively closes the gap between her fictional story and fact.
Titular character Joy was once bought by the “Madame”, who manages a group of sex workers. After many years, Joy is very close to paying off her debts. With this release comes an Austrian passport and freedom from her oath to serve as a prostitute. But the arrival of Precious, a younger girl following the same path as the other women in the Madame’s company, becomes a problem. Joy must teach Precious the ropes when she gets off to a fruitless start. Hardened through years of tough experiences, Joy has no difficulty in laying down the rules from the offset: “Don’t trust anyone except for yourself. Don’t trust me, because I don’t trust you.”
This is just one amongst Joy’s many challenges. She has a daughter and, given the nature of her work, she can only care for her from afar. Joy also faces financial pressure from family in Nigeria since her father needs medical treatment. Before leaving for Europe Joy took an oath with a juju priest to behave well and never get involved with the police. As she comes to the end of her contract she contemplates blowing the whistle on the Madame, and attributes her father’s sudden poor health to this transgression against her oath.
All of the dreadful violence experienced by the core characters occurs off-screen, in what could be considered a disservice to the horror of these women’s situation. Early in the film, as Precious is being punished for failing to bring home enough money, the camera remains in the adjacent room, fixed on the indifferent faces of the other women. These hard expressions convey not only helplessness in the situation, but that they have certainly faced far worse themselves. Mortezai’s filmography indicates a passion for analysing social issues, but Joy unnecessarily blocks viewers from the hard truths.
Joy develops as a complex investigation into sex trafficking by blurring the identities of the victims and those complicit in holding up, and profiting from, a toxic system. Cyclicality is used as a tool to convey Joy’s entrapment. However much she tries, be it through playing her role in the system or attempting to tear the system apart, Joy can’t shatter the bonds that tether her to this static situation. The truths spoken in this film are heartbreaking and largely handled well.
Tickets are still available for the four showings of Joy at the London Film Festival.