November, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Ousmane Sembène

Starring:Fatoumata Coulibaly

The decline of the major Hollywood studios in the 1960's and the rise of a group of then young rebellious directors--Coppola, Rafelson, Scorsese, etc. -- have conditioned American audiences to believe that film is a young person's game, a highly commercialized art form basically catering to an audience below age 25 or 30, which requires youthful creative talent in order to be successful. It's an image that's simply not borne out by the facts of course, but it lingers in the public's perception nonetheless.

What then, to make of a movie about a highly emotional subject--female genital mutilation--by an African filmmaker well into his 80's? Will he have anything really fresh to say about this practice, still employed in a majority of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa? And if he does have a worthy point of view, will his work have sufficient energy and verve to carry it off?

Fear not; the remarkable Ousmane Sembene’s films, (a baker's dozen, all made by a director who started in his mid-40's) represent some of the most highly respected movies ever to come out of Africa. He’s created here a scorching indictment of a practice born out of cultural repression and nurtured by the insular nature of Islamic life in the villages in the southern half of the continent. Set in tiny Burkina Faso, Moolaade traces the fate of 4 young girls who appeal for protection to Colle Gallo Ardo Sy, a neighborhood matron who once saved her own daughter from this clitoral-removing procedure. By pronouncing a moolaade-a decree of sanctuary which only she can revoke-this middle-aged wife of a village elder confronts not only the women who perform this abomination, but also the structures of male dominance which permit husbands to dictate unquestioned obedience to tradition when dealing with their multiple wives and daughters. 

Sembene thus weaves the issue of chauvinism into his story, suggesting that the irrational persistence of this barbaric practice remains rooted in a deep suspicion of modernity and the change it threatens to the time-honored traditions of male power and authority.  When the village elders insist the Koran requires the practice, the women reply that sermons heard on their portable radios indicate that religious scholars disagree. The solution? Confiscate all the radios so the women can no longer listen to such incendiary nonsense. When Colle refuses her husband's request to withdraw the moolaade and deliver the young girls for mutilation, his brother demands a fierce beating for Colle to bring her in line, a punishment for disobedience only her husband can deliver. What follows provides an electrifying denouement, visually uniting the themes of genital mutilation, the rights of women to control their own bodies and the dangers inherent in a pathological fear of cultural change which masquerades as religious obedience. Put western clothes on these fine actors, place them outside any abortion clinic in America and you'll have some sense of the universality of Sembene's message.  

The director's style is straight-forward and unadorned; limitations of budget probably justified the narrow deployment of the camera in his cinematography, but it's also possible that Sembene was consciously trying to make a film that would appeal directly to the audiences that need it most-those who live in equatorial Africa where deliberately damaging a woman's sexual organs is considered necessary to render her a fit bridal prospect. The style is so straightforward and direct that it could just as easily have been verbalized as a cautionary tale by a storyteller sitting under the shade of a village tree. But this simplicity isn't in any way childish; Sembene's made a powerful demand for social change whose message emerges with immense impact even for those whose exposure to film is very limited. As such, it's a clarion call for a reexamination of basic attitudes in Africa and an unusually detailed examination of contemporary village life and the mindset there for audiences in the West. 

Moolaade is neither easy nor conventional, but the power of its message and the skill of Sembene's delivery shame many of the more expensive films on serious subjects made elsewhere. 

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