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Six girls from a rural village in Burkina Faso escape from a
'purification' ceremony, the female circumcision ritual that is still
practiced in 34 of the 58 nations in the African Union. Two head for
the city. The other four know of a woman in the village who, some years
earlier, had prevented her own daughter from being cut. They run to her
home, where she is the second of three wives of a man whose brother is
a figure in the town's power structure. To protect them, she pronounces
a moolaadé, an unbreakable spell of sanctuary that can only be
dissolved by her word, and which is marked simply by stretching some
colored strands of yarn across the enclave's doorway.
This is the narrative set up of Ousmane Sembene's latest film, Moolaadé, which had its Philadelphia debut in a packed (literally sitting in the aisles) auditorium at the International House cinema last week. How will the townspeople react to this open rebellion against female genital mutilation? How will the men who govern the town respond? What about the women who actually perform these ceremonies, presented in the film virtually as a coven of witches dressed entirely in red? And, especially, what about the town's other women? Will Collé Gallo Ardo Sy recant the mooladé? Will the village ever again be the same?
All these questions are literally put on the table in the first ten minutes of this remarkable motion picture, beautifully filmed & amazingly acted, full of agitprop theatrics & yet as tightly & deeply scripted I mean this literally as any Shakespearean tragedy. That's a combination that is uniquely the signature of Africa's master film maker, Ousmane Sembene.
Had Sembene not been drafted into the French army in his native Senegal at the age of 15 in 1939, he might not have joined the Free French forces fighting the Nazis in '42 & thus might not have ended up after the war in France, working on the docks in Marseilles, where he wrote and published his first novel, Le Docker noir in 1956. It was not usual in the 1950s that a man of his class background in Senegal not a member of any tribal elite even learned to read, let alone became a critically & financially successful intellectual on a world scale. Which must be why Sembene made a conscious decision to study film at the All Russia State Institute for Cinematography founded by Eisenstein & at Gorki Studios in Moscow. In 1966, three years after returning to Senegal, the then-43-year-old Sembene released La Noire de . . ., the first feature-length motion picture produced in Sub-Saharan Africa. His films, which can stand up alongside the best of Bergman, Kurosawa or Godard, are intended for audiences who will see them sitting on dirt floors in African villages.
Feminist themes are common in Sembene's work. Ceddo, my favorite of the three earlier pictures of Sembene's that I've seen, looks at Islamic imperialism in Sub-Saharan Africa precisely in terms of what it meant for the role of women in the tribes. Colonialism, contemporary issues of globalization, modernity & identity are all heightened when viewed through the lens of gender relations. Addressing one must mean addressing all & nobody is in a better position to do so than someone whose identity is both defined & constrained by her gender. On a continent where the ratio of resources to human beings would render an economic determinist suicidal, Sembene has come up with a particularly radical prescription the path through globalization has to proceed through feminism first.
'The West is never my reference,' Sembene says in the Q&A period that follows the picture. He's explaining why it's not a problem that his work tends to be put into a third-world ghetto at European film festivals, even though it plays to packed houses, enthusiastic audiences & consistently wins prizes. Moolaadé, for example, won the Un Certain Regard award this year at Cannes & was relegated to the Planet Africa series at Turin.
Yet, in fact, Moolaadé is very much about the confrontation of rural Africa with the forces of globalization. The girls who flee their mutilation do so because they've seen the consequences dead sisters, maimed women up close & personal. The city urbanization is the refuge that two seek (and when they don't get there, the consequences are grave). The men in the village respond first by banning radios one sees here an economy that built around bread and the access to batteries which are piled outside of the local mosque (where they are left on to play music & some news throughout the entire film up to their climactic scene). When tensions & actions escalate & the men in the village coerce Collé's husband into whipping her in public, the person who steps in to stop the violence is the itinerant shopkeeper, Mercenaire, expelled from the military & living by cheating everybody with a smile in return for his shiny western goods batteries most of all who steps in to protect her. And when, finally, the women of the entire village, save for the mutilating witches, revolt against the men, it is the French-schooled son of the chief who lets it be known that he not only is willing to marry a woman who is bilakoro, uncircumcised, but will go beyond the ban against radios, even to the point of having television. What ultimately rescues the women is not just courage & solidarity the victory comes at a heavy cost but modernity itself. It is precisely the inability of the village to seal itself off from the influences of history, whether in the form of TV, radio, condoms or AIDS posters, that the women's victory will not be overturned.
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 colors, 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 theater unmoved.
This is a candid picture of West African village life with a tale centered on a most sensitive subject. A tale told with humour and an honesty that is lacking in so many mainstream films. Sometimes shocking and at other times hilarious, it describes the story of the women of one village and their struggle to overcome the petty male tyranny that imposed the tradition of female circumcision and the ostracism of any who refused it. The male elders set an almost Taliban like regime claiming that female genital mutilation is a requirement for women as stated in the Koran. This of course is wrong and one woman's bravery is enough to turn the tide and change things forever. Well worth a watch if you have the chance - don't be put of by the subject matter.....
One of legendary Senagalese director Ousmane Sembene's defining films. A fascinating study of the clash between pragmatic modern thinking and staunch religious traditionalism in Senegal. The film focuses on the controversial procedure of 'purification', in which young girls are forced to undergo genital mutilation to supposedly make them better, more faithful, wives in the future. When six young girls flee the process, four of them seek refuge with a well-known woman, Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), who is viewed with suspicion in the community for her stubborn refusal to adhere to all the societal 'norms'. Collé offers the girls protection (moolaadé), a spell which can only be broken if she herself utters the words which will end the moolaadé. Collé herself had refused to let her daughter be 'purified' and her actions prove to be inflammatory, causing the elders to become increasingly nervy about her failure to conform. As their control mechanism is slowly eroded they lash out and the community takes on alarming animalistic tendencies. Although the film ends in a rather idealistic fashion, Sembene's work is both moving and engaging. His stance on the core debate is clear but the views of the various community members are not so. In this way he is able to explore ideas of male hegemony while simultaneously studying the difficulties faced by the patriarch in striving towards accepted constructions of masculinity. Sembene understands the quirks of this society and his representations of these offer both light relief and food for thought. Ultimately the film swings back to the debate at its core - the battle between old and new. The modern approach is symbolised by the women's radios (and the knowledge acquired from them) and by the chief's French-educated son, who becomes the first to turn his back on the male elders. Religious traditionalism manifests itself through a ruthless and outdated male hegemony and it is clear that Sembene sees feminism as a crucial means by which modernisation can be achieved. His film provides an insight into an under-represented part of the world. It is a beautifully told story which offers a multi-layered yet concise analysis of ongoing issues which are relevant to us all.
This is my first experience watching a film made in Africa. What a
wonderful film to begin with! Moolade is one of the best films I have
seen in recent times. It is a social commentary on the position of
women in many parts of the African continent focusing on female genital
mutilation (circumcision) called as "purification". The movie is
tightly scripted, full of subtle, thought-provoking observations of the
familial and social order in an unnamed African community. The director
patiently tells the story of a woman (Colle) who is against female
circumcision and offers a protection (Moolade) to four little girls who
escape the ritual and seek shelter from her. The men in the community
are unable to comprehend or handle her actions and the change it would
bring in the community. They see her actions as a threat to the status
quo and to the traditions. Ancient or modern, many traditions are based
on superstitions and worse yet, are harmful to people. There is
absolutely no question that female circumcision is a horrific practice
that is not only physically harmful to women but also one of the worst
forms of oppression. How deep this rot has spread in the community is
lucidly depicted in the movie. The men in the community are unable to
think outside the traditions and the women, especially Colle, end up
paying a steep price for them to learn and grow.
Some scenes in the movie were very powerful and disturbing - the female circumcision (the actual process happens off screen), the scene where Colle's husband f**ks her (she is cut), the climax and the denouement. However, the movie proceeds at a relaxed pace in tune with life in the community, and always has interesting things to say. I was fascinated by the culture and the people that were in the movie, outside of the issues of female oppression. The movie is also backed by strong performances, particularly from Fatoumata Coulibaly, who portrays Colle with an interesting blend of resolution and motherliness - a powerful performance in a powerful film.
DO NOT MISS! 9 out of 10
Moolaade is a present-day story of the impact that female genital mutilation has on one African village that lives very much according to tradition, yet has been touched by communication from the outside world. It's a simple, yet gripping, story, beautifully and creatively filmed. The people come across as thoroughly real people (in spite of the fact, or because, several of the actors are not professionals), yet the story is presented in such a way that each element, abstracted and beautifully caught by the camera, is isolated from whatever else is happening. It is filmed in an Africa language (and occasionally in French) so most viewers have to depend on subtitles, which appear at times to be abstracts of what has actually been said. Because the subtitles are short, they are readable and tend to reinforce the simplicity and directness of the story. It is a film with a message, educational but also a feast for the eyes.
By total coincidence, I found myself at the Japan premiere of this
intriguing film. I had no idea what it was going to be about, so it was
fascinating to watch unfold. But, unlike most of the reviewers I have
read so far, I did not think of it as an "African" film. I have seen
the dynamics present in this film played out in many cultures and
religions around the world, including the "West".
Meaningless tradition in the face of humanity is a universal theme and this film sends the message clearly home. Anybody who watches this film and smugly thanks their lucky stars that they weren't born in such a barbaric culture, has totally missed the point. They may even be part of the problem in their own culture, though unwittingly, as that is exactly how tradition works.
But enough about the message of the film. Even with the heavy subject matter at hand, the film takes us through the leisurely- paced life in an anonymous sub-saharan village, and we get treated to many of the joys and even the humor of their daily life as well. I believe the director would like to say that village life, and even many traditions, are not inherently good or bad; in fact many will probably feel even some envy of the idyllic village and its rich culture. This, however, also happens to be the backdrop of a ritual whose meaning is long forgotten, not to mention excessively cruel. And cities are plenty filled with cruelty of different types.
The fact that the director is male makes the impact of the film all so much stronger, as he shows no sympathy to men in general, and sees the weakness of the female role in African culture (which is just an extreme picture of sexual discrimination everywhere; and ironically men are always giving lip service to women). Thus the general shortage of strong men in the story may be pointed out as one of the film's weaknesses. On the other hand, the women are all top-rate actresses and their roles are realistic, and the near absence of character clichés (among major characters) is almost stunning.
The story is simply told, and many may think it is all too painfully obvious, but I think it is a work to observe on multiple levels: e.g., when the story seems not to be moving ahead we get a chance to learn about village life (albeit not unrelated to the overall work), or we get generous helpings of the character development of the three wives. Subtle interactions among villagers may bore some, but I found them fascinating. It's not made like some Hollywood movie, and thank God for that.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I just saw this film tonight and was blown away. The story deals with four young girls who flee from their circumcision ceremony and claim sanctuary with Colle, a woman who refused to have her daughter undergo the ceremony a few years earlier. The story then follows Colle as she stands up against the tradition and authority that she feels is wrong. There is pressure from all sides for her to give these girls up, and the uncertainty of whether or not Colle will be able to stand up against everyone and keep these girls safe held me engrossed. Wonderful performances are given by all the actors, but especially by Fatoumata Coulibaly as Colle. I did feel the ending was a little too optimistic, I'd like to believe that's the way it could and would happen, but I just don't think things would be resolved so happily. Also the subtitles are in a very light color, and were very hard to read against the light-colored backgrounds. Other than that, it's a wonderful film and very worthwhile.
This is a movie that you should not miss. This is the type of movie
that has the potential to change the world. I know that may sound
cliché and cheesy, but it's the truth. The movie comes from Senegal and
deals with the still common practice of female circumcision.
This masterpiece has been created by Ousmane Sembene, the 81-year old father of African cinema. Besides having such a powerful a surprisingly applicable theme, it is artfully filmed. The fact that it is created by someone who has lived in Africa making movies his entire life is reason enough to see this movie. Although there are many films are about Africa, there are very few that capture Africa as it really is. Sembene is a master of it.
Then there's the colorful story. It's hard to believe that this type of lifestyle is still very common in parts of Africa. The urgency of this message will captivate you. It may make you appreciate living in a country like the US, that seems to have come so far when it comes to woman's rights, but even more than that, it will hopefully create a common tie across the board knowing that every human desires and deserves their right to life. The humanity of this film is painfully clear. There's no avoiding a change of heart and mind. All this said, Senegal has some difficultly finding actors that can handle the depth of this subject. But don't let that take anything away from your experience. It's possible the most empowering movie I've this this year or any.
Ousmane Sembene is a colossus among African filmmakers. He is what
Kurosawa and Ray are to Asia. At 82, this man is making films on
women's problems, on colonialism, on human rights without losing sight
of African culture.
"Moolaade" deals with rebellion by African women against female circumcision, a tradition upheld by elders, Muslim and animist, in a swathe of countries across Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. Interestingly, the film is an uprising within the social traditions that allow the husband full powers over his wives and acceptance of other social codes to whip his wife in public into submission. How many women (and feminist) directors who preach about female emancipation would have dared to make a film on this subject in Africa? The subject could cause riots in countries such as Egypt. Sembene is more feminist than women and I admire this veteran for this and other films he has made. He graphically shows how women are deprived of sexual pleasures through this practice and how thousands die during the crude operation.
"Moolaade" deals with other aspects of Africa as well. It comments on the adherence to traditional values that are good--six women get protection through a code word and piece of cloth tied in front of the entrance to the house. It comments on materialism (including a bread vendor with a good heart for the oppressed who is called a "mercenary" by the women who claim to know the meaning of the word) that pervades pristine African villages (the return of a native from Europe and the increasing dependence on radios for entertainment and information).
Sembene's cinema is not stylish--its style stems from its simplicity and its humane values. Sembene's films allow non-Africans to get inside the world of the real Africa far removed from the world of the Mandelas, constant hunger and the epidemic of AIDS that the media underlines as Africa today. Sembene's film is not history, it is Africa today. The performances are as close to reality as you could get.
At the end of the film shown at the recent Dubai Film Festival, I could not but marvel at a man concerned not at making great cinema for arts' sake but using it creatively to improve the human condition of a slice of humanity the world (and the media) prefers to ignore.
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