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In an African village this is the day when six 4-9-year-old girls are to be 'cut' (the act of female genital mutilation) All children know that the operation is horrible torture and sometimes lethal, and all adults know that some cut women can only give birth by Caesarean section. Two of the girls have drowned themselves in the well to escape the operation. The four other girls seek "magical protection" (moolaadé) by a woman (Colle) who seven years before refused to have her daughter circumcised. Moolaadé is indicated by a coloured rope. But no one would dare step over and fetch the children. Moolaadé can only be revoked by Colle herself. Her husband's relatives persuade him to whip her in public into revoking. Opposite groups of women shout to her to revoke or to be steadfast, but no woman interferes. When Colle is at the wedge of fainting, the merchant takes action and stops the maltreatment. Therefore he is hunted out of the village and, when out of sight, murdered. Written by
Max Scharnberg, Stockholm, Sweden
A Conventional Though Compelling Discourse On A Long-Practiced Form Of Abuse
In veteran African film-maker Ousmane Sembene's final feature, the viewer is transported to a remote village in Burkina Faso, where one woman has dared to stand against the long-held local tradition of 'purification', the euphemistic term for circumcision in prepubescent girls. Giving sanctuary to a group of children due to undergo the often fatal rite of passage, and with seemingly the entire village against her, the woman's only recourse is to enact the moolaadé, or 'magical protection', which none dare oppose. Then her troubles really begin. While the film's anti-circumcision stance will certainly be preaching mainly to the choir and its construction fairly conventional both in terms of storytelling and production, 'Moolaadé's subject matter cannot fail to strike a chord in the viewer, dramatically bringing to life a custom that still affects the lives of many today.
Burkina Faso is not the only country where the practice continues (nor is it a practice exclusive to some Western African nations), however a 2006 study by the World Health Organization found that approximately 72.5% of Burkinabé girls and women were circumcised, making the Senegalese director's choice of location a highly valid one. In the film, the 'purification', carried out by an elite group of women in the tribe importantly underscoring that proponents of the tradition are not wholly defined by gender is seen to be highly traumatic and physically damaging to the victim, and frequently fatal.
The term 'purification' speaks volumes of the perception of females and sexuality held by those in favour of the custom. Other arguments supporting the practice as expressed in 'Moolaadé' speak of a long-held tradition traveling so far back into the mists of time that no-one seems able to explain the actual reason for it, and finally, that it is a requirement of Islam. Certainly there will be many Muslims who will take issue with this, and Sembene makes a point of showing Burkina Faso's complex cultural potpourri. On top of its indigenous animist roots, the society also shows traces of its French colonial past, as well as being a melting pot of many religions, the lines between which are heavily blurred. Add to this the increasing influence of modern technology and it is not hard to comprehend how beliefs have played a steady game of Chinese Whispers.
Indeed technology is seen as the greatest threat of all to the preservation of the strongly patriarchal society, with the village serving as a microcosmic stand-in for many cultures the world over. With the dreaded radio spewing forth subversive ideas from distant (and not-so-distant) lands, the local women find themselves increasingly able to articulate a 'worrying' desire for independence and opposition to values never-before challenged. A perhaps inevitable scene reminiscent of 'Fahrenheit 451' comes in answer to this rebellion, though in a wonderful display of irony, the most celebrated man in the village is the only one to have swapped the illiberal world of the tribe for the free market corridors of corporate France. Those responsible for challenging the status quo fight their corner in the flickering shadows of burning torches, mob rule and genuine fear. Not all, however, are so easily cowed into submission.
'Mooladé' has an excellent and believable cast to bring this turbulent society to life, from star Fatimouta Coulibaly as the brave Collé Ardo, to Ousmane Konaté, playing her husband's unpleasant and hardline brother, Amath. Joseph Traoré, as the victorious homecoming son Doucouré, skillfully depicts the mild-mannered success story increasingly caught between the values of two very different worlds, and special mention goes to Lala Drabo, who, though only in a supporting role, conveys the raw anguish of loss caused by the purification.
For all this 'Mooladé' is constructed in a fairly simple and conventional way. The narrative is robbed of complexity by the strong stance against female circumcision by its writer, as opposed to simply telling the story and letting the viewers decide. Instead, the protagonists and the villains are clearly drawn, and, sympathetic to the cause, the viewer takes no journey through the story they have already arrived from the outset. How the film is perceived in nations where female circumcision is common would presumably be an entirely different matter, and it would be interesting to find out if it has altered any viewpoints.
The foreign viewer will also pay more attention to the cultural depictions of the colorful appearance of Burkinabé culture, of its tribal nature, its sounds, and the different behaviour of its people. It is as much a window into another world as it is a commentary on the struggle against a dangerous custom. This though is brought to the film by its overseas audience: its director does not go out of his way to highlight the culture as a spectacle in its own right. It perhaps does not matter therefore that on the production side, 'Moolaadé' is not an adventurous foray into film-making. While I would have preferred a less-biased and therefore more confident approach, it is not as if I didn't go into the film with a firm view on the subject of female circumcision myself. Taking a stand on the issue is ultimately, what 'Mooladé' is all about.
For this reason above all, I highly recommend the film, and of course, foreign viewers like myself will also discover one of the multi-layered cultures of Western Africa within of which it is such an ingrained part. Although not a cinematic masterpiece, 'Mooladé' is a very moving and very human drama that I hope will continue to get its point across in places where that message needs to be heard most.
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