Desmond Ovbiagele, the writer-director of The Milkmaid, was inspired to choose his title by the design on the obverse of Nigeria’s 10-naira note: two Fulani women carrying baskets on their heads. Ten Naira equals less than three cents in U.S. currency. Keeping in mind that Ovbiagele was an investment banker before he turned to filmmaking, it’s easy to imagine the title as a subtle message about the role of women in the milieu the film portrays: Islamist extremists.
Since the beginning of the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria, more than 37,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million have been displaced.
The Milkmaid opens in a beautiful, almost idyllic environment, as two sisters, Zainab (Maryam Booth) and Aisha (Anthonieta Kalunta), prepare for Zainab’s marriage. But on the day of Zainab’s wedding, Boko Haram fighters intervene, killing many of the men and kidnapping the younger women, including Zainab. Determined to save her sister, Aisha tracks down the camp of the extremists and is herself taken captive.
Ovbiagele immersed himself in first-person accounts of survivors of Boko Haram captivity before writing his script. He reveals the appalling conditions in which the women are forced to live. They are slaves who are punished for the slightest of offenses, including becoming exhausted while working in the fields. Aisha is ordered to marry a leading fighter, who slowly, gradually, comes to respect Aisha’s stubborn insistence on finding her sister. But when Aisha finally does find Zainab, she learns that Zainab has not only accepted wholeheartedly her captors’ extremist ideology, but she has also become an important figure in the movement. In fact, she is in charge of teaching young women how to commit suicide bombings.
The Milkmaid is a courageous film. More than half of the population of Nigeria is Muslim. Although the film makes clear that the Boko Haram beliefs are a far cry from the Islam practiced by the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims, before allowing the film to be released in Nigeria, The Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board removed about 24 minutes of footage from Ovbiagele’s original version.