Sudabeh Mortezai is an Iranian woman filmmaker whose film ‘Joy‘ takes a stark look at sex trafficking between Nigeria and Vienna.

Screening at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Joy won the overall ‘Best Film Award’ in the official competition. This is the second time Mortezai has screened a film at the festival, in 2014 her debut feature ‘Macondo‘ was placed in the LFF’s Sutherland Award category. 

Joy, played by Joy Anwulika Alphonsus, is a young Nigerian woman, living in Vienna, who is bound to pay off her debts to a Nigerian Madame by working the streets. When teenager Precious (Mariam Sanusi) is brought into the fold, Joy is motivated to take action. Moretzai’s pared back style brings a realism and honesty to a global issue. 

TBB Talks caught up with the director to find out more about her motivation to tell this story. 

This is your second time at the London Film Festival …

It’s really great to be back, actually. You never know if they will also play the next film.  My first film was here, and now Joy is in the main competition. I’m very happy.

What’s the process of getting into the festival, how important is it?

With an arthouse film like Joy,  it’s a very tough subject matter, also the style; the way the film is made is very tough. I think festivals, especially a festival like London, can help a lot. Because commercially it’s not so easy to promote a tough film like this.

Bearing that in mind, why did you choose this particular topic?

I’m really interested in social issues and I’m a woman. So, somehow I read about this type of human trafficking and it touched me. Especially because in this system of human trafficking it’s women exploiting other women and mostly they’re former trafficked women themselves who become madams, which was so shocking to me. I felt I cannot just walk by this. I have to think about this. I have to be certain about this and ultimately I had to make a film about this.

How much research did you have to do?

I started reading books and articles, then I very quickly I moved to trying to talk to victims or anyone involved. Which was really hard in the beginning to even get people to admit that they have been victims or are somehow involved. But it got better over time. I talked to lot of women in Vienna where I’m based. Then I took research trips to Nigeria, to Edo State and Benin city the parts of Nigeria where most of these women come from. That was very important for the film to actually get to the roots and meet the families; the people involved and try to understand  how this works.

What’s your heritage… 

I’m actually from Iran in origin and I grew up in Austria

It’s good that you actually went to Nigeria to research before speaking on the matter. Especially as someone not of Nigerian heritage … 

It’s a very important point you are you pointing out. That’s a question I was asking myself constantly. Do I have the right to tell this story? Am I allowed to tell this story? I felt as a woman somehow I can connect, but still, it’s not my culture, I didn’t grow up there, but the interesting thing was that in the research and ultimately in casting, which was extended research in a way I didn’t meet a lot of resistance.  On the contrary, I met a lot of Nigerian women living in Vienna some of them who had some experience with human trafficking, others who had no experience whatsoever. A lot of them came to the casting and encouraged me. They were very open and almost everyone said, please make this film. It’s so important to talk about it. It’s so important that you research as well. Only one woman who was very tough and said ‘I don’t know if you have the right to do it‘ and we had a long conversation. But mostly it was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.

I think you told this story with a dignity and respect especially a particular scene where Precious is shown the harsh realities of her situation… 

I didn’t want it to be exploitative. Often times, when you’re dealing with the sexual abuse or sexual violence against women the scene, becomes exploitative in itself. I was very aware of that. I wanted people to feel what these women are feeling, but I didn’t want to have some woman’s body exploited on camera just for the sake of telling a story.

Joy is a very touching tale. It’s stark facts. It’s very real and the relationship between Precious and Joy and even the madam is an honest visualisation of how trafficking affects people from all perspectives. How did you prepare the actors for the sensitive topic?

The way I work in the casting process is extremely important. It’s really key to everything. I was trying to find out in the casting who could play these roles, who is willing to do it, who can do it because it’s very emotional; very tough. Also, can they work together well as characters? The main work happened during the casting, finding the right people and chemistry… I don’t rehearse anything, I like actors to be very spontaneous. I shoot in chronological order and they don’t read the script. I work with improvisation, so every day we’d get on set, I would explain to them the scene and of course, they had the story beforehand and we would kind of build the scene together in a way. There’s a lot of spontaneity and the actresses brought a lot of their personalities and their intuition into the scenes and I think that’s why it feels so natural.

Joy Anwulika Alphonsus who plays the title character was quite arresting to watch so much expression with such slight movement …

I get goosebumps when I think of my first casting with her. It’s hard to explain. The interesting thing is the film and the character was always called Joy from the beginning. It was just a coincidence that her real name is  Joy. She told me that’s what drew her to the casting. She was so impressive because she conveys so much through her face by doing almost barely anything. Also ‘Precious’ (Mariam Sanusi), she was sixteen when she came to the casting; very young so she came with her mum. It’s really important that families are involved because this is a very tough touchy situation.

You also let the characters speak in the pidgin, left in the natural interactions through dialogue… 

I didn’t give them any dialogue. I just knew what the scene was about. I knew what the storyline was and where I wanted to go. I was willing to take input from the actresses. I wanted the language to be really authentic. How they talk. No censorship from me. It’s a collaboration. I did a lot of research, so the story that I put together though it’s a fictional story, there’s a lot of truth and reality in it. Then I let the actors find their voices and act it out in a way that they felt natural.

It’s a tough story, how did you break the tension on set?

I think for people watching the film, it’s hard to imagine, but we had a lot of fun on set. We had tough moments there are some emotional scenes that were really tough. But most of the time we had a lot of fun. The fun moments in the film they’re very natural because that was a normal tendency on set.

What I also noticed and appreciated is that you showed Joy and Precious’ perspective of the Austrian tradition Krampus. Especially because at the beginning of the film we see Precious visit a witch doctor, and you show the ritual he performs.

Usually, the western lens on African spirituality and traditions are portrayed as primitive and ridiculous. Having Joy and Precious witness the Krampus celebration, was a subtle comparison showing how all cultures have their own rituals and beliefs, it’s not just Africans … 

In Austria, Krampus is somehow connected to Christmas, St. Nicholas brings gifts to the good kids and Krampus is like a bad guy who punishes the bad kids. For me it was important, I wanted to centre it from the point of view of the women, so then the Austrian tradition becomes exotic. One person’s superstition is another person’s belief.

How long did it take to film Joy?

All in all, from the first idea to the finished film, it was almost four years are. But if the shooting was last year over a period of three months. But, in blocks. So to have all the different seasons and things that happen in the film. It was financed by Austrian and Viennese film funds.  Entirely Austrian production. We have a fantastic film funding system in Austria.

What are you hoping for the legacy of this film? Do you want it to be used as a tool for advocacy?

I certainly hope so. Just before I was talking to Joy about that, what we hope to achieve with this film. First of all, we want to raise awareness about this subject. Joy said something really beautiful, ‘I really hope that someone will break the cycle‘. It’s so hard because it’s a vicious cycle, but someone has to take a chance. We hope that people; women from Nigeria and women who are vulnerable to this kind of exploitation will watch this and get more awareness and maybe a few of them will want to break the cycle.

So what’s next for you?

Nothing that I can really talk about, but thinking about different things.

From your perspective as a woman filmmaker, how is the industry doing?

It’s far from perfect, but it’s improving. You still have to fight and you still have to try to be much better than everyone else to get your project done, but I have to say, I have been either lucky or really hard working, so it has worked.