Aisha and Zainab are sisters and best friends, the sort of friendship that develops from long years of shared life, then deepens in hopes of longer years of bonding. Life as milkmaids in a small village of herders sets a limit on their outlook but that does not hinder their aspirations. Marriage is a turning point, and on the day of Zainab’s wedding, an unexpected visit from “protectors” sets things further off-course. Pretending to be Nigerian soldiers, terrorists in camouflage invade the village wedding and break up life as the sisters, and anyone for that matter, have known it.
The drama of The Milkmaid (2020) unfolds as an intense, risky attempt by Aisha to find her kidnapped sister. But this is not obvious from the beginning, a shocking sequence of false alarms ending in a massacre. As the story develops, entirely from Aisha’s (Anthonieta Kalunta) point of view, the viewer gets drawn, with her, into the world of Islamic jihadis. She is forced to become the wife of Dangana (Usman Kona), a stalwart fundamentalist, has a child with him, but sets her sight on the goal of reuniting with her sister.
Eventually, she does, but Zainab (Maryam Booth) has moved on. Thoroughly radicalized, she trains other women to be fighters (among the film’s best moments is an astonishing 7-minute-long sequence of suicide bombing, with nothing but an understated soundtrack) and wastes no time denouncing her sister. Dangana is also unraveling, in an opposite direction. Thoughtful and brooding, he’s fallen in love with Aisha and wants to free her, and failing that, tries to escape with her. Garba, an insurgent he has trained, trails them and stabs him in the back, never mind that Dangana thinks of that as the act of a coward.
Produced and directed by Desmond Ovbiagele (Render to Caesar, 2014), The Milkmaid makes exquisite use of the landscape of northeastern Nigeria, south to Boko Haram’s enclave. The storytelling is an astutely informed look into the world of religious fundamentalism. Lust for power energizes cruelty in the face of misbegotten notions about Islam. Yet, the jihadis have a sense of humour. Dangana says to his bride, “You have to wait until Paradise before seeing your husband without a mask.” Moments after burying the blade in his mentor’s back, Garba loses his glasses, and searching for them proves harder than the murder.
In places, the film stretches dramatic irony to the limit. How do Aisha and Hauwa (Patience Okpala) manage to get a safe ride on a motorbike unarmed, and given a free pass in such sensitive locations? The reasons for Zainab’s late change of attitude are also puzzling. Humanizing the killers as thoughtful and funny, The Milkmaid stays aggressively cynical throughout, and when the shadowy Imam claims the desire to be “powerful and respected” as a motive, one hears the standard line of fascists.
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