Directed by Ousmane Sembene. 2004.

Reviewed by Howard Schumann and Jamie Garwood

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Moolaadé, a powerful and uncompromising film by 81-year old Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, depicts the clash between entrenched cultural and religious tradition and modern secular society over the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) in a West African village. Practiced mainly on girls between the ages of four and eight, FGM refers to the removal of part, or all, of the female genitalia as a means of reducing a woman's desire for sex and the chances that they will have sex outside of marriage. According to Amnesty International, an estimated 135 million women have undergone genital mutilation, and two million a year are at risk - approximately 6,000 per day. A procedure that has been performed for over 2000 years, it is normally done without the care of medically trained people and may lead to death, serious infection, HIV, depression, or gynecological complications. 

In the film, six girls refuse to take part in the "purification" ritual. Two run away to an uncertain fate and the remaining four are sheltered by Colle Gallo Ardo Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly), a woman who is known to have mystical powers and has given the four girls the "moolaade", the spell of protection. She ties a rope across the entrance of her home and all are forbidden to cross it until she releases the spell by uttering the correct words. Colle refused to have her daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traore) submit to the "cutting" seven years earlier and Amasatou is called a "bilakoro", a woman who is unclean and her chances for marriage are said to be slim. She is, however, planning on marrying the son of the tribal chief, Ibrahima (Moussa Theophile Sowie), a well off Westernized African who is due to return from Paris. 

Colle's moolaadé stirs the anger of the Salidana, a group of women dressed in red gowns who perform the mutilation. She is also forced to stand up to the intimidation of her husband and his brother and the male elders in the village who see her as a threat to their values. As a gesture of control, the men confiscate the women's radios, their main source of news of outside life. Rigidly defending their traditions and what they questionably see as a practice sanctioned by Islam, they also turn against an itinerant merchant they call Mercenaire (Dominique Zeida) who comes to the aid of Colle in a shocking scene of public flogging. As the issue becomes crystallized, many women rally to Colle's support whose courage in the face of determined opposition is of heroic proportions. 

While Moolaadé is political, it is not simply a polemic against injustice. The film is multi-layered and the characters are complex individuals who are much more than symbols of right and wrong. Shot in a profusion of brilliant colours, Moolaadé opens the door to a little known culture and, in the process, brings a brutal practice to the world's attention. According to Nahld Toubia, MD, a physician from Sudan, "It is only a matter of time before all forms of female circumcision in children will be made illegal in Western countries and, eventually, in Africa." Moolaadé shows us the way and few will leave the theatre unmoved.


Howard Schumann

The feature of the Ousmane Sembene retrospective at the National Film Theatre and a product of the bfi Black World season, the 82 year olds most recent work, Moolaadé, is one of great emotive power and passion.

Sembene uses familiar aesthetics of his work here; strong female characters, realistic location and a strong personal issue that impacts all of the surrounding community, not just society.  Sembene is regarded as a political film-maker (he certainly has the strongest voice in African cinema) and here you can see that when he takes an issue and makes it personal, that in turn makes the film become political.  The film is about oppression through historical tradition and acceptance.  

The women in this film fight against the ritual of female excision, the slicing away of most of the clitoris in young girls.  At the start six young girls run away from the ritual, four seek moolaade (protection) from Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), who refused her daughter excision seven years previous.  What follows is an episode of how this one action has a reaction on the whole village, how Colle’s act diminishes the power of the village elders who feel the women should follow the rules and that any act of protest should be eased before it gets out of hand, by motions or actions.

At two hours the film can seem stretched but it successfully gets its point across thanks in part to the balance of right and wrong, setting up the opposition in the first forty-five minutes and then the film switches gear when the son of the village leader returns to get his bride, who happens to be Colle’s daughter who they refuse permission to marry because she is a Bilafaro, one who is not cut.  The son gives an alternative male view, he is educated and of sound reason and confronts his father who he believes to be tyrannical (‘My marriage is my business’, he says twice).  Another alternative male point of view is Mercenaire (Dominique T. Zeida) who brings products for the village to buy, is a known womaniser but is the only one to stand up against the violence towards the resisting women.  His role is broadened to being a UN peacekeeper who stood up when his commanding officers were stealing money, but this act of defiance is one too much for him as it leads to his death at night by the men of the village.

Ultimately the role of protest returns to the women who get their way and once the period of Moolaade passes, turn to their voices instead and acts of diplomacy to get their desired results.  The oppositions continue with the balance of a dark subject against the sense of elation that concludes the film.

The performances garnered from an inexperienced cast raise this film above the norm; the sense of pathos by all the women is heartfelt and most importantly powerful.  The men are depicted as misogynist, lazy and aggressive, while the women are diplomatic, personable and the active individuals of the community.

The film has a great sense of place and location using a real village as its site of activity, the hedgehog like mosque is a blessing of a setting.  The costumes are well done, but use a colour scheme to distinguish the intentions of the characters.  The women who do the cutting of the girls wear red robes - indicating danger; the good women (Colle and her friends) all wear calm colours like green and blue, and the men wear harsh earthy colours like brown and yellow linking them to the stark landscape they live in.

The film has a nice ending, talking about the mosque and a symbol of its stillness that sits atop its roof, and what it will be eventually replaced by.  Eventually all things must change and action is the thing that brings it about, this film states that protest can be a positive action and not always looked down upon - much like the women of this community and the continent this community is in.

Moolaade is on limited release at selected cinemas around the UK now. 
The Ousmane Sembene season runs until June 30th.
Black World is at the NFT until the end of November, 2005. 

Check for details.

Jamie Garwood
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