“The Milkmaid” and other African productions are putting extremism under the microscope and drawing diaspora audiences in the process.
In the moving Nigerian drama “The Milkmaid,” Aisha and Zainab are Fulani sisters taken hostage by Boko Haram insurgents, the extremist group that in 2014 kidnapped more than 250 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok. With sweeping landscapes shot in Taraba State in the northeastern part of the country, the film, written and directed by Desmond Ovbiagele, deftly tells a story both hopeful in the possibility of reconciliation and harrowing in the journey to get there.
The film is the latest entry in a growing body of African cinema focused on the grim toll exacted by the terrorists of Boko Haram. In addition to “The Milkmaid,” there’s Netflix’s “The Delivery Boy”; “Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram” on HBO; and “Daughters of Chibok,” a documentary short that won Best VR Immersive Story at the Venice Film Festival in 2019. Each has examined the magnitude of violence the extremist faction has inflicted on northern parts of Africa’s most populous country and the neighboring countries of Niger and Cameroon.
When Nigeria’s film regulatory board recommended that 25 minutes of footage be cut from “The Milkmaid” and then curtailed showings in theaters there in the fall, the producers and director sought to cultivate audiences in Zimbabwe and Cameroon; the drama eventually earned the prize for best film in an African language (the story is told entirely in Hausa, Fulani and Arabic) at the 2020 African Movie Academy Awards. It was also Nigeria’s selection for the international feature Oscar, though the movie did not make the final cut.
Despite the censorship and truncated distribution, however, “The Milkmaid” and other movies in this emerging genre have found a diasporic audience abroad.
“‘The Milkmaid’ is anchored to a certain social discourse we’re seeing unfold currently,” said Mahen Bonetti, founder of the New York African Film Festival, which chose the drama as the opening selection last month for its 2021 edition. “We’re seeing a rise of extremism and religious fanaticism, particularly amongst youth, and witnessing the disintegration of families and bonds that once held communities together. And young filmmakers are being brave and telling these stories.”
The amplification of these stories, namely those of Boko Haram’s female victims, was especially important to Ovbiagele, who also produced “The Milkmaid” over the course of three years.
“I felt we didn’t hear enough from the victims of insurgency and who they really were,” Ovbiagele said in an interview by phone from Lagos. “They’re not always educated” like the Chibok schoolgirls, he added, and “most don’t get international attention. But despite that, their stories deserved to be heard too.”
And so, Ovbiagele sought to recreate the plight of Boko Haram victims the best way he knew how as someone with little intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the organization. After a community of survivors from northern Borno State relocated near his home in Lagos, he spent months gathering first-person accounts from survivors — women and girls who were piecing their lives together, he said, and making sense of their new realities as orphans, widows and victims of sexual assault. He also asked local nongovernmental organizations who were working with Boko Haram victims to properly assess the challenges faced by the survivors.
In “The Milkmaid,” the young title character, Aisha (Anthonieta Kalunta), is captured, along with her sister, Zainab (Maryam Booth), by Boko Haram insurgents who turn the women into servants — and soldiers’ wives — in a terrorist camp. Aisha is able to escape but eventually returns to the settlement to find Zainab, hardened and indoctrinated with zealous devotion, now enlisting female volunteers for suicide missions.
But creating a movie in Nollywood — the nickname for Nigeria’s thriving movie industry — is not without challenges. Certain elements of producing a full-length film — financing, endless paperwork and audience building — would be familiar to filmmakers everywhere. But making a serious drama about Islamic fanaticism — in a country where roughly half the residents are Muslim and where recent instances of religious terrorism have gained unwelcome global attention — makes such a task especially daunting. And driven to make a movie that appealed to a larger international audience accustomed to sleek, big-budget Hollywood productions, Ovbiagele reasoned that “The Milkmaid” wasn’t a Nollywood production but rather its own form of cinema in Nigeria.
The Nigerian movie business has its origins in local markets, where storytellers on limited budgets readily met the sensibilities of local viewers. Eager to generate profits and offset rampant piracy, filmmakers would quickly churn out full-length, shoddy productions.
However, the sometimes hackneyed movies served a purpose, explained Dr. Ikechukwu Obiaya, who, as the director of the Nollywood Studies Center at Pan Atlantic University in Lagos, studies movie productions. Nollywood has always been “a chronicler of social history,” he said, paraphrasing the Nigerian film scholar Jonathan Haynes. Obiaya added, “During Nollywood’s early years, often something that happened one week would be depicted in a Nollywood film available at the local market the next.” And the industry has made movies about Boko Haram. But productions like “The Milkmaid” have “shown greater creative growth in the industry as a whole and in turn, demonstrated a greater interest from the rest of the world in Nigerian stories.”
Ultimately, Ovbiagele wants to continue making films he feels passionately about and hopes the film will impart a lasting impression on viewers. “I hope audiences will leave with a deeper insight into experiences and motivations of both the victims and the perpetrators of terrorist organizations and specifically the resilience and resourcefulness of the survivors.”