September 3, 2009
By Jorge Garzón
Moolaadé: Drama. Starring Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maimouna Hélène Diarra,Salimata Traoré, Dominique T. Zeida, Mah Compaoré, Aminata Dao and Moussa Theophile Sowie. Directed and written by Ousmane Sembene. (Not rated. 124 minutes. In Wolof, Bambara, Diola-Fogny and French with English subtitles. At the Lumiere and Rafael Film Center.)
Female genital mutilation — sometimes called female circumcision —
is often in the news for horrific reasons. Last month, after Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was shot and knifed on an Amsterdam street, his assassin left a note on the body that threatened a Dutch parliamentarian who had criticized the type of female circumcision practiced in Muslim countries. The World Health Organization estimates that upward of 140 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation.
In "Moolaadé," the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene explores the issue in the context of a remote West African village where a woman rebels against the practice and harbors four young girls who don't want to be cut. A standoff ensues, pitting the rebellious mother named Collé (played by Fatoumata Coulibaly) and her female supporters against the village's male elders and the women who perform the crude surgeries. Coulibaly's character invokes the spirit of sanctuary (moolaadé means "protection" in the Wolof language) to guard the girls, even as she risks widespread condemnation and a public beating from her husband.
Connected subplots, which (along with the incredible setting) help give
the film more appeal, are everywhere in "Moolaadé." Mercenaire (Dominique T. Zeida), an itinerant shopkeeper who has fought in wars, sets up his business in the village center, from where he can flirt with all the pretty women and observe the goings-on. The handsome son of the village chief (Moussa Theophile Sowie) arrives from Paris with money and modern views about TV, radio and family tradition. Collé's husband (who has two other wives) watches her rebelliousness with a mixture of sympathy and frustration, until he's driven to action by an overbearing brother who supports the ceremony that he and others consider "purification."
Religion is another subplot. The village practices Islam, and village
elders — walking around with prayer beads in their hands — insist that
female circumcision is a commandment of faith. The village mosque, a beautiful mud structure that's a miniature version of the stunning mosques that dot West Africa, overlooks the village's main square, as if God were watching the
It's clear which side Sembene takes in all of this. The Collé character
is a hero of "Moolaadé," and is reminiscent of other strong women in Sembene's films, including his most recent work, "Faat Kiné," which featured a single mother who manages a gas station in Dakar. Sembene says "Moolaadé" and "Faat Kiné" are the first two parts of a three-part trilogy about "heroism in daily life." The heroism in "Moolaadé" is not always pleasant to watch. And the film can be preachy and didactic. (Sembene says he makes his films first and foremost for an African audience.) But "Moolaadé" is not a "downer" film as much as a parable that lets us see the hardships (and occasional humor) that are inherent in an environment where the slightest change in tradition is a cause for great alarm.