Not to be confused with the biopic about a woman who invented a mop that made her millions, “Joy” (2019) that is streaming on Netflix is about Nigerian sex workers. The title is taken from the main character’s name. What is unusual about “Joy” is that it exposes sex trafficking from the perspective of the sex workers they exploit.
The film never makes the work look glamorous. The process of leaving one country (Nigeria) to another (Austria, Italy) is filled with danger, as traveling without passports could lead to immediate deportation. Part of Joy’s motivation is that she needs to keep working so that she can be reunited with her daughter.
Not a great deal is explained in the film and audiences who live outside of the countries involved might not understand what the center is called that keeps Joy’s daughter. She appears to only see her on Sundays when workers from the center bring her to see Joy at church. Speaking of church, there is a large enough Nigerian population to have their own services in their language. But apparently, there is.
What audiences do know is that the women who stand on European street corners earning money for a “Madame” that they call “Aunt,” understand the social currency of certain looks. Having extensions, high heels and makeup will make cars stop for you. Joy teaches this to Precious, a young newcomer who has difficulty with what she is expected to do (have sex with strangers). Precious also resists using extensions or even making herself presentable. She does this until Joy (and the Madame in front of everyone) explains to her that if she doesn’t earn money, Joy will have to earn it for her, and Joy is not willing to shoulder any more burdens.
The world of “Joy” is one of catch-22’s. When viewers first see Joy talking with Austrians at an NGO (she goes with one of her regular customers who has his own motives) that aids sex workers in getting free from their Madames, they have hope. Except, they want her to expose her Madame, but they can’t promise her a visa. The system feels unfair and viewers wonder what Joy and others like her are supposed to do. Maybe if NGO’s and governmental agencies were more clear about what can be given to sex workers who escape their captors (because that is essentially what they are), more workers would come forward.
And the world of the sex worker is mercurial. All of a sudden, once Precious gets into the habit of fixing herself up, she becomes a top earner. Without notice, she is sent to Italy. Shadow contacts arranged by Madame will take her where she needs to go. But Joy has to take her to Italy to meet the contacts. Both travel without passports and Joy is visibly nervous on the train. Watching her and Precious avoid the border police will put viewers on the edges of their seats.
“Joy” is the kind of foreign film that should be required viewing not for its classic sophistication, but for its piercing look into a world that many make arguments against, but few have bothered to actually examine. Sure, it is a movie, but the realism it uses to show how sex workers are put up against impossible forces, makes it more than that. Gritty and riveting, “Joy” will have audiences searching for ways to make differences in the cast members’ real-life counterparts.