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From the critically acclaimed filmmaker and founder of independent post-colonial African cinema comes a look at Africa’s traditions and sociopolitical landscape—what makes its both beautiful and brutal. In his final film (he passed away in 2007), Ousmane Sembene—whose themes have always been Africa and its relations to the globalized and war driven world—seeks and succeeds in the portrayal of the working and rural people of Africa as humans ravaged by the tragedies of modern life. But his is not just an anthropological expose for the educated elite. Moolaadé manages to elegantly discuss the most inelegant of subjects. Set in a small African village, it strikes a seemingly antiquated scene; the women have no part in political power, they are beaten in public by their husbands, and are circumcised at a young age in order to be purified and ready for marriage. For Sembene, beneath an image of modern Africa lies the question of culture—and Moolaadé is much more than a polemic against the practice of female circumcision.

Purified girls following the purification ritual. Courtesy of New Yorker Films.

In Moolaadé, Africa’s patriarchal culture shows its tragic flaw in the violence it inflicts upon its women and young girls through the mutilation of their bodies. And as Sembene said, “The development of Africa will not happen without the effective participation of women. Our forefathers’ image of women must be buried once for all.” Sembene holds a microphone up to the women who have endured generations of silence. Winner of Best Foreign Language film at the National Society of Film Critics and of the Cannes Film Festival UN Certain Regard, Moolaadé is a comment on culture itself, and the violence that can be sustained within tradition. Through the conflict of female circumcision, Sembene opens a window into an African society that struggles to self-identify alongside the continued spread of Islam and European bourgeois capitalism, and the rural women who become warriors against the violence that comes alongside traditional rites.

Through Sembene’s humanist style, the images of this unidentified African village (it was set in Burkina Faso) are not an elaborate post-colonial look at what being “African” might look like. Sembene’s cinematic motives are not to provide the viewer with an exploitative or anthropological look at Africa. While there are tie-dyes, bright plastic water tubs, singing, polygamous households and women gathering water while their husbands smoke pipes, all is done within the context of intruding modern capitalism. Each scene of traditional tribal custom is buttressed by another where the townspeople visit a place of worship second only to the mosque: the shop. At a cart piled with bread, razors, and fancy t-shirts, men make small talk and women flirt lackadaisically with Mercenaire, the town entrepreneur, as they peruse his stand of imported goods. Mercenaire is like a Greek chorus, a critic of traditionalism and the personification of the progressive incursion on the village’s fundamentalist Islamic ways of life.

When four young girls escape the rite of Purification—being dragged into the woods to have their clitoris and labia cut off, an act both excruciating and life-threatening—Collé, a courageous mother and eventually a warrior against this tradition, takes the girls into her home in the custom of moolaadé: magical protection. Having lost two daughters and almost a third to genital mutilation (she saved her last daughter from the Purification ceremony, and has since been somewhat of an outcast), her fight with the traditionalists in the village leads to a total upheaval, with fundamentalism and modernity clashing head-to-head. Both the escape of the young girls from their bloody fate and the arrival of the heir to the tribal throne (a quintessentially modern man in a Western European suit recently returned from France, he’s the only man or woman who sweats from the heat) sparks a clash in culture that will mark the end of a fundamentalist era, and a glimmer of the ending to an age-old patriarchal rule. Both the men and women of the village reckon with tradition as a compromise to human rights, and eventually will be faced with a choice: how does one separate culture from atrocity? The director goes into further detail about his politics in the supplementary material located in the extras disc, and info booklet, which provides a much-needed social context for the film for those new to Sembene’s work, or those not up on their African politics

Moolaadé comments on the realities of post-colonial African life, and grants an astonishing look at African autonomy, spirit, and fight for women’s rights. In Moolaadé, change will come when the village learns to combine its tradition with globalization, information, and a widespread consciousness that change is due. Sembene avoids heavy handedness when discussing female genital mutilation (FGM), and he does not paint the townspeople as brutal or evil. This tactic would be an easy way out, especially for the Whole-Foods-shopping, super-conscious liberals who like to watch films from far-away places without engaging their content. Sembene does not provide such viewers with the comfort that circumcision could never happen here. Because tradition is not just an African thing. Patriarchy is not just an African thing. The continued subjugation of the female body is certainly not just an African thing.

The film’s heroine, Collé, like a Joan of Arc or even an Elizabeth Bennet, is a woman who precedes her time. She represents the future, where the women of her village can change the course of its politics and culture. The film is a shout for the African woman’s right to hear and speak and see, and a child’s right to protect her own body. Sembene’s last masterpiece is a heroic story with the ability to change the way we view our modern life in its entirety. And there is hope for the future—according to the heir of the village throne, in his shiny new shoes, and pressed linen pants: “The age of little tyrants is over.”


Makenna Goodman

Makenna Goodman is a freelance writer based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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