There’s a scene in Victor Viyuoh’s film “Ninah’s Dowry,” where Ninah (Mbufung Seikeh) is beaten and then strung up to a ceiling by her severely abusive husband, Memfi (Anurin Nwunembom), who leaves her there as a form of punishment. This scene, and many others, reminded me of a scene in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave,” where Solomon Northup is left hanging to a tree for an entire day, as he holds onto life. But the brutality in this film is not based on race, but rather gender. Like Northup, Ninah wills to survive this brutality and break free of a system of bondage; one that sees women as property in marriage.
Set in a rural, present-day Cameroon, the film centers on Ninah, a strong-willed, defiant mother of three. As her father dies, she tells him of her anguish at being sold into marital bondage, and decides not to return home, but when Memfi finds out she is pregnant, he sets out to bring her back to their village. She wants nothing to do with him, but her dowry, or bride price, becomes a barrier to her freedom, as she can’t afford to pay it back, and neither can her struggling family. The dowry, in Cameroon, is a monetary process in which a potential husband pays the bride’s family in cash or other goods, for her longterm security in the marriage. In traditional Cameroonian cultures, the bride price must be paid back entirely if a divorce or separation is sought, and this can be a challenging, futile process for women.
Viyuoh deftly illustrates these challenges by following Ninah’s day-long physical journey to escape her abusive husband on foot, through water, and amidst the dewy hills of Cameroon. It is a visceral film that doesn’t shy away from the devastation of its subject matter. Viyuoh is sensitive and observant to Ninah’s struggle, showing her strong, inviting face in close-ups and framing the pain, frustration, and perseverance in her journey with movement and stillness.
Considering the grave subject matter of the film, it would’ve been easy for this to become a damsel in distress- tale of oppressed African women and bad men, but there’s enough nuance in the script and dialogue to render complex characters and situations, like Ninah’s brother who wants her to return to Memfi, but wields a chainsaw at him when he tries to abuse her. There’s also a song that Memfi sings in a bar with other men, praising the existence of women, at the same time beating his wife. Ninah herself displays an interesting set of qualities- she’s smart and defiant in the best ways, and has a boyfriend on the side.
As we witness her attempt to escape her husband and his band of friends who double as a sort of slave patrol, we root for her. This is a true survival film where a woman tries to save herself. Actress Mbufung Seikeh stands the test of endurance as she runs up hills, climbs into a ceiling, holds her breath in a muddy pond, and comforts her children. The film also complicates ideas of cultural gender-based oppression, while showing how damaging these forms of abuse are to the livelihood of women, families, and communities. No one is absolved as they stand by and watch a woman being beaten on the streets. These are human rights issues, in a well-written, moving human story.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Visit her website here.