The Milkmaid proves Nollywood is capable of more than we give it credit for

The Milkmaid has had quite a journey before it reached me as a pre-event screener. Finished in 2018, it has been banned by the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (as all great Nigerian cinema is) and has languished in a purgatory of sorts as its producers, Might Man Entertainment fight to get the ban overturned and their film in cinemas. The film’s crew has also had to stay silent while the film’s trailer routinely went viral in 2019 and 2020, starting up rumours of its viability in the Oscar Best Foreign Film category.

When I first heard about the film, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t simply circumvent the hostility of Nigerian media regulation and court global film festivals, but now that I have seen it, I understand. This is a film that Nigerians need to see.

The Milkmaid is unlike anything else I have ever seen come out of Nollywood. The closest film I could say falls in the same broad thematic area as the film is Anakle Films’s ‘Up North’, only because they are both set in a Northern state and cinematically engage a region that Nollywood as we know it has largely avoided. But where Up North uses Bauchi as a beautiful tourist-y backdrop for its film about a Southerner working through his preconceived biases, a premise that while noble others the very people Up North seeks to humanize, The Milkmaid spares no thought for explaining the lived experiences of its characters or justifying their realities to its intended audience, it just gets to work. After all, clocking at 2 hours, there is a lot of ground to cover.

As someone who lived through the religious riots in Kaduna in 2000, and lived in the North for most of my life, I understand implicitly how the whole region is flattened and people like Aisha, the Talakawa who live largely unaffected by the politicization of religion and the homogenization of the North into ‘Hausaland’, preserving their culture and customs that have survived for hundreds of years are erased in service of an agenda. So I was especially apprehensive to see that the film was directed by Desmond Ovbiagele, an ‘outsider’. The first scenes of the film quickly allayed my fears.

Obviagele’s film opens with the slaughter of unsuspecting but resigned villagers who are lured into an ambush by Hauwa, one of the film’s lead characters. There are two betrayals in this first scene, one by Hauwa, and one by her husband and leader of a band of insurgents who reneges on a promise not to kill. We are introduced early into the world that Hauwa and her friends, milkmaids living in a hamlet somewhere in Northern Nigeria, must navigate and follow their spiralling  lives  as they become entangled in the ongoing occupation of the region by a terrorist group.

It is not a world that is all gloom, even though Ovbiagele does not shield us from the violence, brutality, betrayal and death that characterizes oppressive insurgencies. He also takes care to show the beauty of a pastoral life. One of the film’s most enduring scenes is a modest but joyful wedding party, introducing the principal players, Aisha (played by Anthonieta Kulunta), Zainab (played by Kannywood veteran Maryam Booth). It is a small wedding, with guests in second hand t-shirts and faded but clean atampa. There is none of the ostentatiousness of traditional Nollywood wedding portrayals, or the voyeurism with which many Nigerian filmmakers portray poverty. Small markers of civilization suggest that the village knows there is a world outside theirs, but they have little interest in joining it. Ovbiagele shows a crucial skill that carries through the entire film, his ability to frame a self-contained narrative.

This self contained narrative is how he manages to hold our attention for the film’s ambitious two and a half hour run-time. It is also an explanation for why the film is shot entirely in Hausa, with all the principal and supporting characters either speaking in Hausa or what I surmise is a Fulde dialect, the language the small tribe in the homestead from which Aisha and Zainab are kidnapped speaks. This kind of trust in the audience is rare in Nollywood, even among auteurs like Kunle Afolayan and Kemi Adetiba exploring new genres, and veterans like Ramsey Nouah revisiting old classics. That confidence allows him to make some truly astounding creative choices, including a wholly non-chronological timeline that flits between the past, present and future of Aisha and Zainab’s lives over the course of 10 years.

This is even more impressive considering there is hardly a scene in the entire film that is frivolous or wasteful. He projects a confidence in the ability of his audience to follow a complex plot without losing interest or becoming confused that is rare among Nigerian filmmakers. Voice-over narration is used sparingly to reacquaint the audience when the film makes one of its many narrative shifts and he keeps the scenes short and the pace fast, only slowing for moments of tenderness. Michael Ogunlade provides an auditory feast to conjure the appropriate response for each charged moment. There are no overt text or auditory cues to alert the audience of the film’s time shifts, instead Ovbiagele and Obijie Oru who costumed the film work together to create a sartorial lexicon that takes a few moments to get used to but helps the audience shift perspectives when the film needs them to. Each era of Aisha’s life is codified by her wardrobe, bright print atampas to mark her young adulthood, A hijab to delineate her time in captivity with the insurgents, gauzy veils to signify her return to favour and her new relationship with Dangana, her insurgent husband, full ceremonial dress to match the happiest points of her life.

This visual language extends into the film’s setting. It is shot in Taraba state, a place trapped between the past and the present. Ovbiagele  goes to great lengths to present a faithful representation of life as it is lived in villages and small towns across Northern Nigeria, and certain locations like the scene with the itinerant market populated with stalls made of corrugated roofing and the dilapidated bungalow style local government primary school class blocks from the Universal Basic Education era are a visceral metaphor for the historical markers of classed poverty that is often missing in contemporary Nigerian film. It all comes together to reinforce The Milkmaid’s self contained narrative, at no point is there an element in the film that jars you out of the trance he weaves, at no point can you question the choices his characters make.

This is a testament to Ovbiagele’s writing, which surpasses his already intimidating talent as a director. He writes a weaving epic that connects its principal characters in ways that are not immediately apparent, giving plot and motive equal importance as the film progresses. Obviagele is also humble, as evidenced by the sheer number of consultants and guides who helped hone the language of the script, accurately represent customs and ensure accents were to par. The single thread of an evolving relationship between two sisters is the weft on which the whole story is spun. It is why Zainab’s betrayals of Aisha surprise us even when we expect them and why Aisha’s optimism is believable in light of everything she endures. A bridal souvenir in the director’s hands is transformed into a symbol of innocence lost and regained. Some characters are radicalized while others grow mellow and regretful, both responses triggered by the same trauma. The film’s twists range from subtle to overt, but never out of place, never gratuitous.

With a script this strong, the cast could really shine.  Anthonieta Kalunta is a revelation, delivering career best work. She disappears into Aisha, mastering two languages for the film and cycling between a range of emotions with such ease that she becomes a mesmer on screen. Kannywood veteran Maryam Booth is a scene stealer, relishing her role as the film’s flawed villain as her opportunity to finally crossover into mainstream cinema. They are supported by a stellar ensemble cast with a special mention to Gambo Usman Kona, who as Dangana provides a stoic contrast to the roil of emotions between the sisters.

There were many opportunities for Ovbiagele to have chosen a more crowd pleasing ending for The Milkmaid, and he teases them at various points during the film, but ultimately the Milkmaid ends as it begins, with a teenage milkmaid, alone, at the start of a precipitous moment. That kind of confidence is hard to ignore.

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