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

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.