And so, Ovbiagele sought to recreate the plight of Boko Haram victims the best way he knew how as someone with little intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the organization. After a community of survivors from northern Borno State relocated near his home in Lagos, he spent months gathering first-person accounts from survivors — women and girls who were piecing their lives together, he said, and making sense of their new realities as orphans, widows and victims of sexual assault. He also asked local nongovernmental organizations who were working with Boko Haram victims to properly assess the challenges faced by the survivors.
In “The Milkmaid,” the young title character, Aisha (Anthonieta Kalunta), is captured, along with her sister, Zainab (Maryam Booth), by Boko Haram insurgents who turn the women into servants — and soldiers’ wives — in a terrorist camp. Aisha is able to escape but eventually returns to the settlement to find Zainab, hardened and indoctrinated with zealous devotion, now enlisting female volunteers for suicide missions.
But creating a movie in Nollywood — the nickname for Nigeria’s thriving movie industry — is not without challenges. Certain elements of producing a full-length film — financing, endless paperwork and audience building — would be familiar to filmmakers everywhere. But making a serious drama about Islamic fanaticism — in a country where roughly half the residents are Muslim and where recent instances of religious terrorism have gained unwelcome global attention — makes such a task especially daunting. And driven to make a movie that appealed to a larger international audience accustomed to sleek, big-budget Hollywood productions, Ovbiagele reasoned that “The Milkmaid” wasn’t a Nollywood production but rather its own form of cinema in Nigeria.
The Nigerian movie business has its origins in local markets, where storytellers on limited budgets readily met the sensibilities of local viewers. Eager to generate profits and offset rampant piracy, filmmakers would quickly churn out full-length, shoddy productions.
However, the sometimes hackneyed movies served a purpose, explained Dr. Ikechukwu Obiaya, who, as the director of the Nollywood Studies Center at Pan Atlantic University in Lagos, studies movie productions. Nollywood has always been “a chronicler of social history,” he said, paraphrasing the Nigerian film scholar Jonathan Haynes. Obiaya added, “During Nollywood’s early years, often something that happened one week would be depicted in a Nollywood film available at the local market the next.” And the industry has made movies about Boko Haram. But productions like “The Milkmaid” have “shown greater creative growth in the industry as a whole and in turn, demonstrated a greater interest from the rest of the world in Nigerian stories.”
Ultimately, Ovbiagele wants to continue making films he feels passionately about and hopes the film will impart a lasting impression on viewers. “I hope audiences will leave with a deeper insight into experiences and motivations of both the victims and the perpetrators of terrorist organizations and specifically the resilience and resourcefulness of the survivors.”