The “father of African cinema,” Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène, was 81 when he made Moolaadé, a film both elegant and incendiary. Its topic is tribal female circumcision; its theme is tradition that’s clung to for no other reason than to maintain the status quo, in this instance, male supremacy. This, the best film of 2004, won Sembène two prizes at Cannes, including the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and, in the United States, the National Society of Film Critics named it the best foreign-language film of the year. The principal language is Bambara. Although Sembène is Senegalese, the film takes place in Djerisso, a village in Burkina Faso. Female circumcision, however, is practiced throughout Africa, in thirty-eight of the fifty or so African countries.
One of the two markers of this tiny village at the edge of nowhere is its bizarre, irregular mosque, which is patterned after the adjacent termite hill. The male elders are shown coming out of its arched doorways, irregular gaping holes that apply a satirical spin to the men’s solemn demeanor and reactionary activities. The scene is also a visual reminder that, for all their disrespect for girls and women, like all other men they originated in women. Their emergence from the mosque is a witty translation of their emergence from their mothers’ wombs. This is the actual mosque in this actual village, and Sembène makes virtuoso use of it.
There is another marker, at the outskirts of the village. It is the stand where Mercenaire, an itinerant peddler, sells his wares at inflated prices. This outdoor department store even sells condoms. Mercenaire is an equivocal figure, as mercenary as his nickname implies, the requirements of globalization providing his rationalization for exploiting the villagers by legally pilfering their pocketbooks. On the other hand, the new day he represents contests the authority of the village males, including the village chief. When the latter gives the second of his three wives a public whipping for also opposing his authority, it is Mercenaire who intervenes to stop the event—at the cost, I might add, of his own life.
The film’s central figure is the village chief’s uppity wife, Collé Ardo, who seven years earlier refused to allow her daughter, Amsatou, to be cut. This act of humane defiance was born of terrible personal experience. As a consequence of her own genital mutilation, Collé lost two babies in childbirth. Amsatou eluded the same fate by being delivered by Cæsarian section, by a Western-educated doctor. That her husband allowed all this prepares us for the fact that he also is an equivocal figure, a traditionalist who has been nudged in a more enlightened direction by this remarkable wife of his—his favorite, he confesses, among his three wives. When he takes the whip to her for the first time, it is at the instigation of his older brother, who indeed insisted on his brother’s third marriage as a means of keeping Collé in line after she refused to have Amsatou circumcised.
What prompts the whipping is Collé’s declaration of Moolaadé, that is, “Protection,” for four girls who have fled their parents and taken refuge with Collé rather than be cut. In effect, Collé has cast a spell enforcing this protection of the runaways. The children have chosen her as their protector because of the example she inadvertently set by her refusal to have her own daughter cut. What began as a humane stand on Collé’s part, therefore, has become a political stand. Six girls ran away. The other two commit suicide by throwing themselves down a well, choosing death over a fate they regard as worse than death. The village men react by filling the well with dirt—an act so irrelevant and uncomprehending that it would be comical were it not for the tragic context.
The marker announcing the Moolaadé is a long red ribbon that Collé ties across the point of access to the compound in which her and some other families live. For us, it is a visual symbol of blood—the genital mutilation that the practice of female circumcision imposes.
The issue of female genital cutting is complex. The practice is ancient, but, despite what the older men in this Islamic village insist, it isn’t prescribed in the Quran. Ironically, European colonialism in Africa reinforced the native tribal impulse toward male authority that sought to counter and undo the matriarchal basis of a considerable part of African history and mythology. In independent Africa, the humiliation that black African men suffered under colonialism required their domination of women, with its entrenched tribal roots, to continue as a psychic compensation. Moreover, the practice of female circumcision was retained as a bulwark against Western influence, which is widely seen as a threat to the maintenance of African cultures. Sembène underscores this point when, in addition to insisting on female circumcision, the men confiscate and burn all the women’s radios in the village square. Televisions are also confiscated. However, the film will end with a glorious skyward shot of the power lines ensuring media reception in the future that groups of Africans can forestall but not prevent.
It is women, of course, who perform the circumcisions. This, too, adds to the complexity of the situation. These women, the bastions of traditional morality out of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), seek the “purification” of girls on the threshold of womanhood as a means of imposing some sort of order on an Africa in what now seems continual upheaval. Sembène also implies a misanthropic, but very human, motivation: “If I suffered this, my daughter, so should you.” But the continuation of such female suffering, as a ritual of initiation into the female lot, runs counter to Sembène’s sense of gender equality—if “gender equality” is even the correct term when applied to a filmmaker who never misses an opportunity to skewer satirically so much male behavior. The grip that the practice of female circumcision maintains is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that an uncut girl is deemed unfit for marriage, and indeed an African man, it appears, won’t marry one.
However, the reactionary women are the key to the future, for they also can achieve the higher consciousness through painful personal experience, as was the case with Collé herself. While Collé’s husband is beating his wife, one of the mothers kidnaps her daughter from the protected compound, thus ending the Moolaadé, and has her cut. The girl dies as a result. The mother, now radicalized, joins Collé in opposing the practice of female circumcision and in confiscating the circumcision knives from those who use them—a parallel act to the men’s confiscation of the radios, but one looking forward rather than back.
Perhaps Sembène’s finest accomplishment in Moolaadé is something that evolves throughout the film, barely noticeably for the most part, but with a tremendous emotional payoff. The film’s distancing techniques gradually dissolve, so that the film achieves a representation of reality so pure and powerful, and so unexpected, that the film becomes like nothing else I’ve seen. Alas, one mistake in judgment on the part of Sembène, who wrote as well as directed, interrupts his exemplary method: a line of dialogue that Collé’s husband utters that is selfconscious movie-speech—something no one would say in reality, and something that didn’t need to be said here. Before he finally turns his back on the other males in order to join his wife in her cause, he tells them, “It takes more than a pair of balls to make a man”—a line manipulating us to applaud. Collé’s husband would have said nothing, just walked away. Cinematically, his doing just that would have been a more vibrant, less rhetorical event. But this may be the only mistake Sembène makes in the entire film.
Intended as the middle part of a trilogy that began with Sembène’s brilliant Faat Kiné (2000) and will conclude with a work tentatively titled The Brotherhood of Rats, Moolaadé is a masterpiece—humane, radical, immensely powerful, as befits an artist who studied under Mark Donskoi, no less, in Moscow. It is also gorgeously color cinematographed by Dominique Gentil (Désiré Ecaré’s Faces of Women, 1985).
I have seen many, many African films, from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia and Zimbabwe—and perhaps other countries that are slipping my mind. Many of these films are terrific. Nevertheless, for me, Moolaadé is one of the two or three greatest of them all.
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