Monday, December 14, 2009


There is a certain cosmic reasoning in Moolaadé, that a film about the lingering problem of female genital mutilation would be made by Ousmane Sembene, the father of African cinema. That it proved, sadly, to be his swan song only adds to its air of importance. Sembene, a committed social activist, makes clear his disdain for the traditional practice of cutting off the clitorises of young women to prevent sexual pleasure and thus infidelity; but Moolaadé has grander intentions, growing from a commentary on a specific issue affecting modern Africa and expanding into a snapshot of contemporary societies across the developing counties of the continent.

The title refers to a spell that offers protection. Collé, second wife of a village elder, invokes moolaadé when four girls in the village and beg for sanctuary from "purification," the euphemistic yet equally horrific term used for the rite. Collé places a decorative rope in front of her domicile, a symbolic fence that nevertheless stops those who would seek to enter and reclaim the girls; after all, if they adhere to female circumcision, which predates Islam, out of tradition -- note that the mothers must, and do, give consent for their minors to be cut -- so too must they respect these old spells.

As the issue itself concerns violence against women, Sembene widens the net to examine the sexual stratification of this village. The men of the village are outraged that Collé is keeping the girls "unclean," and they cite religious necessity though the Koran does not mention the practice and Muslim officials have openly condemned it. They seek to seclude the village from the outside world, though, humorously, all the village women have radios. As Collé's husband is away, the men can only sit back and grumble about how he will surely put her in her place when he returns; "A husband has unlimited powers," one hisses.

When the heir to the village throne returns from an education in Europe, he brings with him ideas of modernization, advising that the elders must allow radios and television to help open the village to the world around them. Ibrahima creates yet another dialectic, between tradition and the potential for growth. He and Amsatou, Collé's unmutilated daughter, are arranged to be married, but Ibrahima's father refuses to allow his son to marry a Bilakoro and threatens to disinherit him. As much of the suspense concerning the village's decision on female genital cutting rests on his choice, firmly linking the struggles between the sexes and between tradition and change to the central issue. The conflict between customs and modernization of course shares ties to the more basic conflict between the young and old: we see a bit of co-wife resentment between Collé and her husband's first wife, and the husband is himself pushed around by his elder brother, who instructs him to beat Collé until she recants the spell.

Sembene displays a remarkable ability, at just over two hours, of presenting both sides of every story, of every character. The animosity between Collé and the first wife softens when, away from public eyes, the wife admits to Collé that she too hates excision and openly helps her protect the girls for the remainder of the film. The mothers who wish to reclaim their children are as forcible and vicious as the men in their insults, but when the two children who ran away and didn't seek out Collé commit suicide, their pain forces a re-evaluation of tradition. Sembene even takes the time to humanize a mercenary who runs a stall selling low-quality good for exorbitant prices and has a reputation as something of a ladies' man. He more or less extorts the villagers, but when Ibrahima tells him about his father's denouncement of Amsatou and his "replacement" bride, his 11-year-old cousin, the merchant explodes. He accuses Ibrahima , his father and his uncle of pedophilia and rages at the heir to the chiefdom, suddenly unconcerned about the money he could possibly extract from such a rich individual. Later, he risks his life to stop a horrible act of violence.

With the camera, Sembene isn't quite so ambitious, but one hardly needs visceral camera movement to emphasize the staggering beauty of this village, its gorgeous inhabitants or their vibrant clothes. What he does instead with his gently moving camera is tap into the beat of the primal African music as well as the contemporary, semi-Westernized music playing on the radios. This subtle intertwining with music not only communicates language through its tribal beats but some inexplicable piece of the soul. His style is not minimalistic, but its simplistic composition is intuitive to the emotions of the story while still allowing the people in front of the screen to project the mood. But Sembene allows for a moment of levity here and there, such as a shot of two goats copulating (which may actually apply to the story just as much as the human interaction). I also wondered, when the disgusted merchant said in French, "Africa's a bitch," if he was not in some way referencing Michel's final line in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless.

Some of the dialogue can be a bit too forward and grand, but I suspect that the translation is to blame, as well as a certain directness in African languages. Moolaadé ends with a moment of triumph more deeply felt than the majority of Serious Issue movies, precisely because Sembene has crafted such a fully realized world that we genuinely care what happens. Watching the women of the tribe rise up and dare to stand against their husbands is one of the great "stand up and cheer moments" of the decade, albeit one fueled as much by frighteningly direct sexual politicking such as a woman spitting "Some give birth, others kill" as it is uplifting and inspirational.

The subtitles that accompany the film capitalize certain key words, such as the titular spell, CUT and PURIFICATION. It's certainly not a subtle method of calling our attention to the problem facing women in Africa, but sometimes one needs to drop the pretense and simply get to the heart of the matter; I recall a documentary about one of the Catholic priest molestation scandals, in which the father of a molested girl rages that we should call child molestation what it really is: rape. Whether the capitalization is an effect added by international distributors or Sembene's own request, these highlighted words are etched into our memory, allowing us to contemplate the irony of using a word like "purification" in connection with something so unclean or stressing that these girls are ultimately slashed with knives, not circumcised in a clean hospital in surgery but by a cabal of tribal doctors who cut while the victim trashes in pain. Moolaadé thrusts us into the middle of a complex situation, clearly defines both sides of the debate, then offers a solution that is neither vague nor on-the-nose. I defy anyone not to be moved by it.

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