Though cinema is sometimes dismissed as inessential entertainment, the medium can be used to bring much needed attention and awareness to important societal issues. That’s what filmmaker Desmond Ovbiagele hopes to achieve through his sophomore feature The Milkmaid. Inspired by the seemingly forgotten events of the Islamist insurgency in Nigeria, this harrowing tale centers a pair of sisters whose lives are torn apart after they are abducted and forced to live and marry into an oppressive way of life. In the edited Awards Radar interview below, Ovbiagele explains the film’s social context and the challenges involved in documenting a sensitive true story.
Shane Slater: What was the inspiration for this story?
Desmond Ovbiagele: I was looking for a story that would speak to some of the critical issues going on in my environment. I live in Nigeria. One of the most prevalent issues was the whole insurgency situation that came to a head internationally in 2014, when the Chibok girls were abducted. There was a lot of outrage led by Michelle Obama at that time. But not too long after that, it seemed as if all the attention sort of just died away. The situation certainly hadn’t stopped. People were still getting killed, victims lives were disrupted. But it seemed as if the international community and certainly the local community had moved on. I wanted a story that spoke to that situation.
As I said, the situation was still ongoing, but all you kept hearing about was the statistics. So I thought the situation and the victims deserved to be humanized. For them to have their stories told to the world and spoken about. I thought it would be a good opportunity to use the medium of film to gain some deeper insights into these people, both on the side of the extremists as well as the victims.
SS: Was there a lot of support for the film while you were developing it?
DO: Well, actually no. This is a project that very much took off and continued on its own steam. Based on the resources that were available to me and the people I was able to reach out to, who were good enough to lend their support financially and otherwise. But in terms of structured support locally or internationally, no.
SS: The narrative takes us into this world that is unfamiliar to many of us. Did that require you to do a lot of research to understand the dynamics and atmosphere within that space?
DO: Absolutely. Even though I am Nigerian, I live in the southern part of the country, which is very different from the north. The south of the country is more Christian, while the upper north is more Muslim than the south. So geographically, it’s fairly well-removed from the theater of conflict. And not being Muslim myself, I wasn’t a natural to embark on this story. So in my quest for authenticity, I needed to immerse myself in the world and its setting. I really had to delve into reading and consuming the accounts of the survivors of the insurgency and what they went through.
SS: As you mentioned, the setting is far removed from the typical Lagos environment that Nigeria is known for. Can you further explain how that setting facilitated the insurgency?
DO: The insurgency situation started with a certain sect, who professed to be practicing Islam but it was a more radical interpretation of Islam. They had gained a following, led by an enigmatic leader who was trying to recruit as many people as possible. Their overriding objective was really to establish Sharia law in their immediate vicinity. They weren’t professing to want to make it a national thing. But they were making sizable territorial gains and were winning people over to their ideology. Because of the perception of the radical nature of their teachings, they were very much under the watchful eye of the security forces, who eventually cracked down on their activities. That led to tensions and physical conflict and the leader actually died.
That incident of his death led to even more radicalization on the part of his subordinates, who took up the baton after his demise. The movement of extremism, particularly the violence, really took off. The tendency to appeal particularly to the indigent youth in the northern part of the country, those who didn’t have jobs or had some sort of grievance, constituted a platform for their grievances to be resolved.
SS: I love the main character Aisha, whose resistance reminded me of Elisabeth Moss’ Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. How did you approach that character and the casting?
DO: Even though I’m from the southern part of the country and I live there, as part of my research I had reached out to an NGO that was doing some work with some of the survivors. It was based in Lagos, where I am. And I was surprised when I was trying to gain some insight into their activities, they took me to a settlement of survivors in Lagos. That actually blew my mind because where they were situated was literally across the highway from where I live. And they were just living there, totally undocumented and unreported. Nobody was aware that all these people we read about were so close to us in the southern part of the country.
Having spoken to a couple of the women there, who had escaped from the north, what struck me was their resilience. Having gone through horrific experiences, having lost loved ones. They had maintained some level of agency to escape from the situation. There were still standing on their own feet. Clearly they had suffered some psychological trauma, but you couldn’t tell from looking at them. They had weathered the storm. They were there and they had survived somehow.
I tried to infuse that quality of resilience in the character of Aisha. Now I needed to cast an actress who could portray that authentically on screen. After a couple of auditions, I was fortunate enough to come up with that particular actress Anthonieta Kalunta. Interestingly, it was even more poignant for me on the production side because this was her first feature film. She had never acted in any single film before. She trained in the theater arts at the university level and was literally fresh out of graduating from university before she stepped into this production.
SS: Was there any fear among the cast and crew about potential retaliation from the insurgents?
DO: No one was particularly vocal about their concerns. But you could tell that obviously people knew and understood the kind of story we were shooting and also the part of the country we were shooting it in. We didn’t shoot in the southern part. We chose to shoot in the northern part in Taraba State, which is itself not the core axis of the insurgency but is part of the group of states that neighbor the axis of terror. So yes, there were concerns that they were closer to risky part of the country.
SS: How was the experience of being the first Nigerian film officially selected for the Oscars?
DO: Well, obviously it was extremely humbling professionally. It was also very gratifying for us. We spent three months shooting in the northeast in Nigeria and without overstating it, our cast and crew sacrificed a lot of themselves to shoot this film. We spent twice as long as we anticipated. Part of that was just logistical challenges, some of it was cultural challenges with shooting in the north and trying to sensitize people to know that what we were doing was OK and we weren’t demonizing our being negatively prejudicial towards any religion. And also a part of it was needing to shoot the film – as a creative choice – in the Hausa language, which I don’t speak. Needing to work through a translator in terms of directing the actors, probably made us take twice as long. So just having our film selected for the Oscars was just a fantastic reward.