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Column No.6: The Milkmaid: When a film does more than it sets out to

Prior to watching ‘The Milkmaid’, I’d only casually read about the film on the internet and the controversy it was stoking, not with the viewing…

Prior to watching ‘The Milkmaid’, I’d only casually read about the film on the internet and the controversy it was stoking, not with the viewing public, but with the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB). But finally privileged to experience it, I pressed ‘play’ relatively unbiased, my mind a tabula rasa of sorts. Let’s begin with the plot, shall we? In an unnamed part of rural sub-Saharan Africa, a Fulani milkmaid called Aisha risks her own freedom in search of her younger sister Zainab, who was taken by insurgents in a raid on their village. Worlds collide, and relationships are forged between unusual parties, and cataclysmic events follow, as they tend to in these things.

At this point, I have to warn the reader that spoilers will follow: It’s hard to discuss this film, though, without mentioning the relationship that develops between the eponymous milkmaid Aisha and Dangana the mid-level commander at an insurgents’ camp. It begins when she’s forced to marry him, only to realize that his other wife is in fact the sister she’s been frantically searching for. Only that she’s no longer the sweet sibling she knew, now all grown up into a sometimes-conflicted trainer of female suicide bombers. The last thing I expected this film to feature was a Stockholm Syndrome-drenched love triangle. But it’s there, in its deliciously flawed glory. Innocently wide-eyed Aisha, a slowly-changing Dangana, and the dark-hearted Zainab form the best parts of the tale.

The aforementioned triangle is helped in no small way by stellar turns by newcomer Anthonieta Kalunta who delivers a blisteringly raw and brilliant performance as Aisha, as well as megastar Maryam Booth who is absolutely terrifying as little-girl-lost Zainab. That’s not forgetting newcomer Gambo Usman Kona’s layered, nuanced portrayal of Dangana, the insurgent who begins to question his leaders. This is all from a well-paced script by Desmond Ovbiagele (yes, the son of Helen Obviagele of ‘Evbu My Love’ fame), who also directed it. But while ‘The Milkmaid’ is a great story, and told respectfully, with sometimes dazzling craftsmanship and art, its subject matter is bound to ruffle feathers in Nigeria. Quite pointlessly, I might add. But I digress.

A few things that got my goat include the narration, voiced by the character Aisha, which seemed wooden in some places. Also, the subtitles seemed a little too large on the screen instead of just below on the mattes, the black bars atop and below the videographic image itself. Then there’s how the insurgents and their lifestyle are romanticized, made to sometimes look like cool anti-heroes, as opposed to the bloodthirsty, maniacal murderers they are. One would expect their appearances, and the look of their environment, to be sufficiently realistic owing to the jaw-droopingly beautiful costume design work of Obijie Oru, and the solid production design by Pat Nebo. But that’s it: Everything else is gold. Even the supporting cast is as thoughtfully picked as the main one, all helping tell the gripping story which the film tries to tell.

However, the secret weapon wielded by director Ovbiagele remains Yinka Edward, the brilliant BAFTA-winning cinematographer who treats every shot as a masterpiece of art, helped in no small measure by the beautiful landscapes of Taraba State, where ‘The Milkmaid’ was filmed. Scenes where someone is reflected in water become sheer visual poetry, while a main character being tossed into a dry well is suitably, terrifyingly claustrophobic. Edwards takes his brilliance further here by applying his reverence for beautiful, sweeping landscapes to smaller scenes, elevating the whole thing to high art.

The story, the performances, and the rest of the visuals are at their best when paired with the music of Micahel Ogunlade, which is atmospheric, and almost a character of its own. It guides the viewer through the story and the various emotions it stokes, and does just as well with the quieter moments, as when everything hits a dramatic crescendo.

To be fair, the technical aspects of this film are quite high in quality, while being a great work of art. I would rather dwell on that, than the nitpicking that dogged the final version of Ovbiagele’s vision. But I do hope the needless controversy would only result in a deep curiosity for the final product. And this is because ‘The Milkmaid’ asks difficult but necessary questions, well-placed within a well-told tale that might as well be drawn directly from reality.

Granted, the film tackles potentially problematic themes. But it does so in a sensitive way which does nothing to take away authenticity or grit. The story, also, is loaded with shocks that aren’t gratuitous in any way. In the end, ‘The Milkmaid’ succeeds in telling the story it attempts to tell. If your feathers are too ruffled to let you go see and enjoy it when you can, then that’s too bad. Because it’s the nearest to a perfectly-told story I’ve come across this side of Nollywood. Quite frankly, Nigeria’s chances at the Oscars this year are suddenly brighter.


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