Director: Sudabeh Mortezai
Cast: Joy Alphonsus
Watch Joy online in the UK: Netflix UK
Joy is a film that doesn’t live up to its apparent title, because it comes not from the feeling of happiness but from the name of its protagonist. Played by Joy Alphonsus with a resilient strength, she’s a sex worker who has moved from Nigeria to Austria, but the price of her escape to Europe is having to pay off her debt to “Madame”, until she’s allowed a passport and to find her own way.
It’s brutal, cruel environment, one that she shares with several other women in a dorm that doubles as a brothel. Tellingly, we don’t start Joy as our protagonist at all, instead following young Precious (Mariam Precious), who arrives in Vienna having been sworn into slavery by a cruel oath that leaves the threat of bad juju hanging over her, should she fail to follow orders. Only once she has been introduced to the others, and the Madame (a fearsome Angela Ekeleme Pius) who rules over them, does her story give way to that of Joy, who is tasked with mentoring the newcomer – and, crucially, covering both of their takings until Precious gets up to speed.
It’s an assignment that sends Joy’s arduous journey towards freedom into disarray, just as she nears finally paying off her debt, and we feel every burst of pain, stab of hope, pang of frustration and blow of exploitation that greets the two women. Director Sudabeh Mortezai assembles an immersive, horrible world that offers a powerful glimpse of inner strength, even as it rails with anger at the devastating conditions Joy and her comrades have to endure. The cast of non-professionals bring a lived-in familiarity to their roles, and a strong sense of community that sparks to life in their occasional group banter – an external bond that’s juxtaposed with the inner conflict that arises for each one in turn, as they have to fight to stay alive in a survival-of-the-fittest environment; it’s an industry that traps women and makes them complicit in their own abuse.
The (mis)treatment of sex workers is an urgent, important topic for society to address, and Mortezai highlights it with the immediacy of a documentary and the humanity of a remarkable, assured filmmaker.
Joy (2018) is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.