Film review: You haven’t seen anything quite like The Milkmaid

If the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) has its way, you will not see The Milkmaid, the sophomore feature length effort by investment banker turned filmmaker, Desmond Ovbiagele. In making the decision to withhold its censorship seal, the agency seems invested in audiences not experiencing the film the way that the director has envisioned it to be seen; on the big screen and with his authorial vision intact.

And it would be a crying shame if the board has its way.

Actually, it would be a crime against all of cinema. Considering that The Milkmaid is as authentic a Nigerian story as a filmmaker can tell. Sensitive, empathetic and eye wateringly beautiful, The Milkmaid matches the brilliance of its content with a technical gusto that is pretty much a rarity in these parts.

Written, produced and directed by Ovbiagele, The Milkmaid is also a glow up, showcasing a depth and artistry that was missing in Ovbiagele’s previous film, the erratic actioner, Render to Caesar. It has been at least six years since that attempt and while there was plenty of promise in Render to Caesar, The Milkmaid feels like the fulfilment of this promise. It is the labor of a creative who has something to say, has done a lot of introspection and knows how to go about outlining his vision.

Ambitious and epic in scope but with plenty of intimacy and feeling, The Milkmaid tells a universal but wholly specific story of human resilience in the midst of devastation. Ovbiagele lifts a window into a world that until the 2014 abduction of the Chibok girls has largely been kept hidden away from the mainstream war accounts. The human cost of the protracted Boko Haram war as it concerns the girl child.

Inspired by the iconic imagery of two nameless Fulani milkmaids at the back of the ten Naira note, Ovbiagele fleshes out a complex narrative for them that situates their lives in some context, placing them in the thick of the Boko Haram war.

With the journey of his two female leads, the sisters Aisha (Anthonieta Kalunta in a revelatory, fully realized performance) and Zainab (Maryam Booth doing transformative work), The Milkmaid goes behind the headlines and digs into the underreported stories of the everyday people who remain unnamed and unheralded. Ovbiagele’s film with its unmistakable feminist bent is an affecting tale of survival and female agency in an environment that would rather smother the girl child.

Adopting a complex structure that is as bold as it is audacious, The Milkmaid drops you right into the action, letting you feel your way around mentally for the screenplay’s anchors. It is a risky bet that Ovbiagele’s non-linear narrative takes on, zipping back and forth across timelines with little more than the characters’ hairdo and makeup as guide. But it is one that ultimately yields plenty of rewards and helps power the film to its heartbreaking yet hopeful conclusion.

In the opening sequence, a young female resident of a village in the throes of insurgency, is acting against her will to lead some unsuspecting vigilantes into an ambush. She is haunted by the murderous spree that follows and in the next scene she struggles to explain her complicity to her friend as they flee from the clutches of their captors.

The film’s protagonist Aisha (Kalunta) offers her friend what little consolation a malnourished and traumatized survivor of forced marriage can, before taking charge of the film’s narrative. Her voiceover work becomes the film’s grounding anchor, coming up at intervals.

Aisha may be a displaced by the insurgency that has taken over her village but she has home on her mind. Her words- and Ovbiagele’s eye- take us back to a simpler time when she existed in a loving family unit as a devoted daughter, protective sister and loving wife. Ovbiagele surmises the simplicity of Aisha’s former life with a wedding scene that stands out for its gorgeous evocation of beauty amidst the ordinary.

Ovbiagele has an eye for drawing up small moments and finding richness and meaning in them. Thus, everyday intimacies like a mother plaiting her daughter’s hair, women preparing a bride to meet her husband and dancing wedding guests take on a life of their own. It helps that The Milkmaid is shot in the stunning piece of paradise that is the Mambilla Plateau, the highest plateau in all of Nigeria.

Yinka Edwards’ wondrous cinematography captures the beauty of this countryside with shot after shot of breathtaking power. Edwards’ work also brings out the detailed specificity of Obijie Oru’s costuming and Pat Nebo’s excellent production design. Complementing them is the melodic score by Michael ‘Truth’ Ogunlade. Ovbiagele is of course, the glue that brings all these parts together in service of a specific vision that feels both sensory and tactile. All of these guys are on top of their game and The Milkmaid feels like career best work from everyone involved. Which is saying a lot.

Aisha and her sister Zainab do not enjoy this moment of respite for long as their village is soon invaded by religious extremists in the guise of protective soldiers. The sisters, plus their friend Hauwa are among the young women carted away and married off against their will in a difficult scene that will test even stoic viewers.

The Milkmaid concerns itself with the physical and psychological impact of this outcome. How do women survive in an oppressive environment where every single human right is taken away? What are the coping mechanisms that they adopt? And at what point does the body crack? Does the mind follow thereafter and is there a way back?

The screenplay- a marvel of plot and dramatic tension- feels Shakespearean, almost like it was written by a playwright or dramaturg with a feel for mixing high drama with tragedy. With cutting dialogue that is precise and controlled- all of it delivered in Hausa and Fulfulde- and layers upon layers of subtext, The Milkmaid does not waste time telling when it can simply show. It has so many ideas it wants to tease out and makes space for each one. The human toll of war, plight of internally displaced persons, the intricacies of religious extremism and the complex bonds between sisters. It is also a grand poetic love story.

The film wouldn’t work without Anthonieta Kalunta’s non-showy but extremely effective performance.

It may be the first time you will see the Theatre Arts graduate onscreen but it is unlikely you will forget her after this. Hers is a mix of coiled physicality and controlled emotions. Kalunta goes through every experience that her character does, imbibes, lives with them and then pours it all out on screen, sometimes with merely a sweep of her sad, soulful eyes. The eyes are alive and expressive even when her body has been beaten down and she is capable of speaking multitudes with merely a shy glance.

Matching her scene for scene is Gambo Usman Kona, an actor from the Taraba local film scene. Kona is a revelation as Dangana, Aisha’s husband and captor. His graceful, formidable screen presence fills up every scene he appears in. His stoic resolve and thoughtful approach to his faith is at odds with the life of a religious extremist and Kona nails these dualities, nearly walking away with the entire film.

As the younger sister, Kannywood regular Maryam Booth turns in the performance of her career as Zainab, the maiden who becomes sucked into the maze of extremism and is tested with the power and freedom uncommon for women in that situation. She demonstrates clearly how victims become oppressors themselves when given no room for redemption.

The Milkmaid’s sprawling cast of supporting players are equally as effective as Ovbiagele proves himself a strong director of actors. More confident with intimacy, Ovbiagele’s hand falters a bit when his story demands big blown out set pieces and this is evident in the somewhat drawn out climatic sequence.

As a potent examination of displacement and trauma, The Milkmaid squarely centers the girl child and is bound to start conversations on extremism and the intersection between poverty, gender and the war industrial complex in the north east.

Interesting that it has taken a Southern man to do this.

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