Questions around the movie JOY – from Sudabeh Mortezai

JOY tells the story of a young Nigerian woman caught in the vicious cycle of sex trafficking. She works the streets to pay off debts to her exploiter Madame, while supporting her family in Nigeria and hoping for a better life for her little daughter in Vienna. Joy struggles to understand her role in this merciless system of exploitation when she is instructed by Madame to supervise Precious, a teenage girl fresh from Nigeria who is not ready to accept her fate.

The Austrian movie did win multiple international awards.

FREE ME was invited by movie director Sudabeh Mortezai and the production company Freibeuterfilm  to join some experts panel discussions following some special screenings of the movie, where also the audience could ask questions.

The movie portraits a quite accurate picture for people who are familiar with the subject, but the questions and reactions from the audience demonstrated, that for many of them lots of the content is confusing and raises questions. Osato has tried to give some insight from her perspective and to explain the cultural background around some of the scenes.

Important- Spoiler Alert. We recommend you look at the Q&A after you watched the movie!

If you have any questions regarding the movie that are not answered here – please send an email to and we will answer either directly or put it up here on the site.

One questions that always came was: “So what could we do to help?” FREE ME does projects to avoid that women even become new victims of human trafficking. Information you find here on our site – and the easiest way to help is to give a  donation

  1. The Ritual
  2. The “free” decision
  3. Precious first and second call home
  4. The rape scene
  5. The niece of the madame
  6. Why Joy does not want to report her madame to the authorities
  7. The lies of Joys family
  8. The auction and Joy becoming a madame
  9. Joy gets deported and wants to come back (plus “money spraying”)

1.THE RITUAL SCENE: For western culture, the Juju ritual scene in the beginning of the movie seems very strange and disturbing. In this scene we see a girl who is taking an oath that she would pay any amount her trafficker asks her to pay and also that she would not report to the authorities that she was trafficked to work as a sex slave. She is asked to swear that if she breaks the agreement something bad would happen to her and her family, something terrible like death, sickness or she been deported back to her country.

For the girls who are asked to swear an oath by their traffickes, this is real, the fear of the Juju is real to them. They grew up in a culture where the fear of Juju is real and all around them. Although most of them are catholics, Juju coexists and plays an important role in the culture. They have heard stories of people who died because they disobey the Juju convenant. There are lots of stories, movies and songs that portray the realness of Juju, so growing up with all this make their fear of Juju real. And whenever something bad happens to any member of the family of the girl, the traffickers will tell her, that this is the evil power of Juju, because she was late with a payment, does not earn enough or maybe she had just bad thoughts.

We also see in this scene that the Juju priest cuts off parts of her hair (in realtiy it is mostly pubic hair), her toe nails and also gave her some marks on her forehead and her back with a blade. Those are intimate parts of her and these are what African traffickers use in threatening a girl to pay up her debth and also not to give her to the authorities. The girls are threaten that if they don’t follow the agreement they made, this private properties would be used to harm them spiritually. They beliebe their traffickers can find them anywhere in the world through this connection.  These things are returned back to the girls family if the whole agreement is complete. This makes the fear more real for the girls and no one would want to break the oath they took.

We know several cases, where the pressure of this oath has caused serious psychological problems with victims. And even if by our standards it seems irrational and fake – the fear is real.


It seems that at least some of the women knew that they would have to work as a prostitute here – so some people struggle to see them as victims- as it was their choice. And even some of the women we work with in FREE ME don`t want to see themselves as “victims”.

But this is looking at another one`s life through your own eyes and seen from a perspective where as a typical European you have an abundance of options in life – where these women have very few to choose from.

None of these women “wanted” to be a prostitute. When they started there journey, some of them still believed, they would come for a normal job, but latest on the journey, in a camp in Lybia they will learn, what they have to do. But from there it is no way back. So in any case it was always a decision influenced by a lack of choices and fostered by a lot of threats, pressure, misguidance, lies, misconceptions and wrong assumptions about the western world.

All this is used by the traffickers.

In the movie Precious begs from her Madame that she is not able to do this job. That she did not know, it would be so hard.

Only here in Europe they realise that they have been following a lie, that there dreams of the west do not match the reality of life here and that they are trapped. So without other options they try to make the best out of the situation and accept their fate.

3.PRECIOUS FIRST AND SECOND PHONE CALL: For most Africans, seeing movies about western world and how easy they seems to portray life on this movie make most of us want to experience life in the western world. The easy life with freedom and so many oppurtunities to make money, we bring this fictional show into reality, thinking its really all that easy to live life in the western world. I remember when I was still very little, I use to think that even the poorest person in the western world has more money than the richest person in my country. This is obviously not true, but that’s just to tell you how we saw things from our side. This is what happens in Precious first call to her family in Africa. We hear her telling the other person at the other end of the call how beautiful everywhere is and how there is constant light (electricity) which is unusual where she comes from. In Benin City having 2-3 hours electricity per day is normal. Precious has high expectations and she wants to give her family hope. She forgets that everythings is not always like in the movie. She is telling them she would soon start to work and then send lots of money home because she thinks everything would be easy like she imagined in her head. Its most Nigerians thinking that when they travel to Europe and under 6 months they are rich because we think money is easy to make in Europe.

In Precious second call,  her perspective has changed. We see her arguing with the person at the other end of the phone how hard it is to get money, and how not so easy her life is going.

All of the victims here in Europe are expected to support their families. All of them feel guilty to a certain degree, of not being able to send more money. And the families back home can not understand, why the daughter who made it to the “rich” world, does not send more.

4.THE RAPE SCENE: We might wonder why none of the girls did something to stop the two guys from raping precious. They are six against two. Or they could also have called the police to stop this.

Obviously first it is fear not to be on the madam black list.

But even as they see this as a bad thing to do, calling the police for a fellow Nigerian is a bad thing to do even if this person in question is doing or did something horrible and deserve to jail. For Nigerians they see it as betraying your own if you call the police on another Nigerian.

They also don’t see it as their duty to interfare with whatever the madam was doing to any girl and thus also include the raping of precious. Mind you its not they are not sad that something like that happen or is happening, but as it happens to all of them it becomes almost “normal”. So they just see it as part of life that its happening anyway and its not the worst that could happen to anyone.

It is something they all had to endure. 100% of woman coming through the mediterreanean route, through Lybia get raped and in the red ligth districts of Europe, raping them is a common way of putting them into place used by the traffickers. It is one way of breaking them.

5.THE MADAM NIECE: We realise that one of the girls that was quite provocative to the madam, just handing over the money in a bag and not like the other girls, making critical comments, etc.. Later we find out that she was blood related to the Madame. We might wonder why would she bring one of her own to work as a sex slave and still collect money from her. For the traffickers, trafficking girls is their business and it doesn’t matter who the girl is or where she is from as long as they pay them the money they agreed on. For the family of the girl they don’t see it as a bad thing, they see it as the trafficker doing not just the girl but the whole family a favour by bringing one of them to Europe not caring what they are coming over to do.

Some traffickers even bring their own blood sisters with the agreement that she would the be the one to take over the whole family responsibily in African by working in Europe and that they would cover the transport costs. But in reality the sister of the trafficker end up paying 20-50 times back like every other girl.

6.JOY NOT WILLING TO REPORT HER MADAM TO THE AUTHORITIES: Remember I mention this in the rape scene that calling the police on another Nigerian is seen as a bad thing and worst even reporting your madam (trafficker) to the police. Reporting your trafficker to the authorities comes with few consequence from the girls side, the fear of the oath she took, criticism from her Nigerian community and also not trusting that the authorities would actually really help her.

Basically they are more in fear of our authorities than of their traffickers. Which is understandable, as in most European countries, there is little help to expect from authorities for victims. We know cases from Austria, where victims got a temporary right of stay to testify in the court against their madame – but after that, they got deported.

Joy fears that if she gives her madam to the authorities, she and her family would be in danger of the Juju oath. In one scene Joy went to make inquiries about what would happen to her if she reports her madam to the authorities. After that she got a phone call from home that her father is seriously ill (which we later found out that the family made that up to get money from Joy), but she blamed herself for the cause of the illness that it was a sign from the Juju for her not to break her oath by even considering talking with the authorities about it. This is very common among us Nigerians that when a bad thing is happening to us we automatically thinks its as a result of something bad we did or someone somewhere is trying to hurt us spiritually. It’s a Nigerian thing and traffickers take advantage of that.

From the community side, lots don’t see it as a bad thing for a madame to bring a prostitute. Some even see it as doing the girl a favour by bringing her to Europe. So reporting to the authorities makes you the bad person in the Nigeria society, people would see you as a snitch and saying you have bite the finger that feed you.

Also from the Nigerian community, the girls are made to believe that white people can not be trusted, for them its easy to trust their own than the authorities so instead of seeking advice from the authorities they rather go to one of their own. They believe this people have the better advice, because they are all coming from the same place and also understand each other better.


Families in Africa thinks that making money in Europe is easy .- especially for girls. They don’t ask what you do to get money because they are ashame of the truth, they don’t really think about it. They take the money they get and use it as a block to not really feel bad for what ever their female child is doing to get money. They want to live better compared to their neighbours and show to people that they have a rich daughter in Europe and she sends home money.

Joy was lied to by her family that her father was very sick (remember she blamed herself for her father illness because she went to make enquire about what would happen to her if she reports her madam to the authorities), so she needs to send a lot of money for his treatment. She sees it as her duty to provide this money, first because she thinks she is in europe so she can give her family a better life and secondly she already blame herself for her father illness. We later found out after her madam returned from Nigeria that Joy brother has gotten himself a new car and also that the father was fine and not sick.

This is common with Nigeria families who have children abroad that the come up with lies and excuses to get money from their person living abroad. They believe making money in Europe is easy and just sending 50 euro home is already a lot of money in Nigeria.

Most lies they make is illness, because the girls would not be settled if they know that a member of their family is ill and what is stopping them from getting well is she and the money she has to send home. Some even lie about the price of how much things are costing. Lets say one of their sister or daughter in Europe is building a house in Nigeria which is quite like the main goal for every Nigerians in Europe,the family who is helping her with the project in Nigeria would lie about how much things actually cost, they could say it cost three times the actual money because they believe she would send it anyway. This is the same as lying with someone being sick who is not actually really sick.

But to be fair – life is hard in Nigeria when you a poor – and most of these women come from poor families. A poor person in Austria probably still has a place to stay, enough food, clothes and if they are sick or injured, they get medical treatment. That is not the case in Nigeria. The only social network you can rely on is family. And when you are in need – a little lie to your sister or cousin- to get money seems not such a horrible thing – when you have little options.

8.THE AUCTION AND JOY BECOMING A MADAM: A lot of people have asked us, if a scene like the sex-slave auction is really possible in Vienna – and that it is mostly women buying other women. The sad truth – It is.

Its kind of like a circle thing that after a victim of human trafficking pays off her debt to her trafficker – some of them change roles and becomes a trafficker and traffick girls to go through the same process she went through and this just goes on and on. While they have to pay their madame, this is their sole purpose and they expect life will become easy after that. Only after they paid their debt (most of them never achieve it, some after many years) many of them realise that they are still in an unsafe place with little options. They are still just a prostitute. They don`t want to do this work but there is no other perspective. So out of the few option they have to earn a living after paying off their debts – they choose this. It is almost the only way for a sort of “progress”. Also the Madame in the movie mentioned that she has gone through this. So the cycle continues. It is a common psychological phenomen, that someone who has been abused becomes more likely an abuser him or herself.

This also comes down to not been properly integrated in the society here. When they are with their traffickers, they don’t have the time to go out and experience the new world and culture that they are in. Even when they get exploited – live with the trafficker offer some sort of structure and social contact. So after paying off their debt then its like they are starting from the scrash and they need to earn a living and also look after their families in Africa.  Most are illegal here – so for them starting to integrate properly so they can get a good job or have more better oppurtunities is difficult for them because they are use to system of being under a madam and becoming a madam themselves.

9.JOY DEPORTED AND WANTING TO COME BACK TO EUROPE: When a girl finish paying her debt to her traffickers after many years, she automatically becomes a threat to the madame.Even when they “celebrate” the occasion, for the Madame it means a loss of control over the woman. She is a competition on the sex market, potentially she could become a madame herself, and without the pressure of the Juju oath, she might talk to the police after all.

As we know in the movie, after joy payed off her debt, she became a madam. She then stand as a threat and a competition to her madam (trafficker). As in the movie it happens that the women get reported by the Madames to the police – and than get deported.

In the movie we see Joy – after being back in Nigeria, contacting traffickers to bring her back to Europe. We might wonder, so why would she want to come back to Europe and why is she not looking to create a life in Nigeria?

So in the last scene we see Joy exchanging big bundles of money at  a ceremony. The people than were spraying money on the dancers.

This looks strange and decadend to us – but in Nigeria is a very common and popular tradition. When people go to parties – especially the rich ones – spray money in the air just to show off, some even then make it into a competition. At the same time it is a gift to organiser of the event and mostly used to pay for entertainment.

Joy looks very unhappy. As someone ewho was in Europe – she should be the one spraying money – but instead she has landed at the bottom of society in Benin City. Women that come back from Europe without money are seen as failure and  scum of society. They get rejected and abandoned by their families whom she supported before from Europe.

Living with this rejectionand the shame is unbearable for these women – there is nothing to gain for them in Nigeria – so they become easy victims of traffickers again, to be send again. To try again is Joys only chance, to return to her daughter.