The Milkmaid – Nigeria’s bid for Best International Feature Film at 93rd Academy Awards

Two sisters, abducted by religious extremists, fight for their lives, freedom, and their sanity




Director Desmond Ovbiagele’s sophomore film The Milkmaid is an unflinching exploration of the human cost of the religious extremism sweeping across the African continent like a virus.

Nigeria’s first qualifying submission for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards after 2019’s Lionheart was rejected for including too much English-language dialogue, The Milkmaid tells the story of two sisters, Aisha and Zainab, who are abducted from their village on Zainab’s wedding day in a deadly attack. This traumatic encounter forever alters their path, destroying their relationships and forcing them to fight for their lives, their freedom, and their sanity.

A story about Nigeria, told by Nigerians, Ovbiagele’s story – told through Hausa, Fulfulde and Arabic – combines stunning cinematography with a powerful script to shine a spotlight on the ordinary people victimised by extremist terrorists, transforming them from another horrifying statistic into real, flesh-and-blood characters with lives, loves, desires, and hopes.

The crew themselves overcame unimaginable challenges while filming in order to complete the film. The team were apprehended at a checkpoint when their cargo – including props for the film – was deemed suspicious by local police. The situation escalated when a member of the local community – believing the crew to be insurgents themselves – advocated for violence. A number of the team were severely beaten and detained for several days before they could convince officers of their innocence and be allowed to continue on their way, as seen in the documentary: The Making of The Milkmaid.

In The Milkmaid, Ovbiagele skilfully juxtaposes the visceral horror and harrowing ordeal faced by victims of conflict with the serene natural beauty of West Africa – especially the jungle, forest, and mountains of Taraba State in north-eastern Nigeria. Ovbiagele approaches difficult topics sensitively, carefully considering how trauma and indoctrination creates perpetrators of violence as often as it creates victims. Indeed, the filmmakers have taken the deliberate decision not to name the Islamic extremists as Boko Haram, commenting that the scourge of extremism has now transcended their most infamous group.

Director Desmond Ovbiagele said: “The religious extremist insurgency that has raged in northern Nigeria for almost a decade has reduced human lives in the consciousness of the general public to mere statistics, typically nameless and voiceless. Inspired by the two Fulani milkmaids depicted on the Nigerian ten naira note, I felt a strong obligation as a filmmaker to harness the considerable tools available within the medium of cinema to help give a voice to those, living or dead, who are not in a position to speak for themselves.”

Starring Anthonieta Kalunta and Maryam Booth and Gambo Usman Kona, The Milkmaid has already garnered critical acclaim, winning five Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Film, Best Film in an African Language, Best Nigerian Film, Best Supporting Actress and Achievement in Make-Up, with UK and USA release dates to be confirmed.