WHILE IT MAY TAKE A VILLAGE to raise a child, sometimes it takes a child — or maybe a half-dozen of them, plus one fearless woman — to raise a village. In Moolaadé, the new film by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, six prepubescent girls in rural Burkina Faso flee from the tribal ritual of excision, better known as female genital mutilation (or FGM). Four of them take refuge at the home of Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the fiercely headstrong second wife of a village elder, who in turn invokes a powerfully protective curse (called moolaadé) that will punish any who dare to violate it. Herself the victim of a botched excision that left her nearly unable to bear children, Collé vows to shield the girls from their pursuers — the council of women, known as the Salindana, charged with administering the excisions — just as she did with her own daughter, Amsatou (Salimata Traoré), seven years earlier. Before long, a villagewide showdown between human rights and tradition, feminism and patriarchy begins to brew. And it is a confrontation that, in Sembene’s masterful hands, gradually accrues the force of a great warrior legend — the warrior, Collé, being but the latest in a long line of forthright Sembene women.
Lest this sound like a rather too weighty night at the movies, I hasten to add that Moolaadé is quite possibly the most buoyant, exuberant film ever made on such an unpleasant topic. Indeed, it was following the premiere of Moolaadé at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it went on to win the top prize of the Un Certain Regard sidebar competition) that more than one American critic felt compelled to point out the ease with which the film might be transfigured into a rousing Broadway musical. But while Moolaadé is undeniably musical, from the rhythmic drumbeats that herald the girls’ escape through the climactic confrontation between Collé and the elders (which is partly sung), it is so in a distinctly African idiom that neither seeks the approval of Western viewers nor solicits their patronizing awe. And while even the sightless might sense the vividness of Sembene’s near-Technicolor palate, the colors that burn brightest in Moolaadé, as in all of the director’s work, are those of human resilience.
At a spry 81 years of age, Sembene is widely acknowledged as the father of African cinema, and watching his films can feel like sitting at the feet of a wise old storyteller as he relates a fable at once mythic and utterly contemporary. Be they urban or rural in their settings, all of Sembene’s tales are ultimately chronicles of village life, suffused with flurries of lively background action and incidental characters (like Moolaadé’s aptly named huckster merchant, Mercenaire). These are movies by an African, for Africans — those seeking Coke-bottle-toting bushmen or spear-wielding Zulus had best look elsewhere. Yet, Sembene only arrived at filmmaking when he was already in his 40s, and it may be that his earlier careers as dock worker, trade-union leader and newspaper publisher shaped his disposition toward crafting tales of oppression and resistance. In those early films, particularly Black Girl (in which a Senegalese maid is pervasively humiliated by her bourgeois French employers) and Emitai (about the slaughter of Diola tribespeople by the French army), the struggle was clearly that of native Africans against their colonial occupiers. But having effectively wrestled with that question, Sembene now turns his attention to the internal struggles that continue to plague an independent Africa, particularly that of entrenched tradition — here symbolized by the 150-year-old ostrich egg situated atop the village mosque — at odds with slowly encroaching modernity. In one of Moolaadé’s most emblematic sequences, the village men collect and burn the women’s radios so as to prevent them from hearing a Muslim cleric decrying FGM. In another, Collé is herself flogged by her own husband, nearly to the point of unconsciousness, in his futile effort to make her recant the moolaadé.
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FGM — which involves the surgical removal of part or all of the clitoris and is believed to make its recipient less promiscuous — is still actively practiced in some 38 of the 54 member states of the African Union. In many of those places, the excruciatingly painful procedure is cited as a tenet of Islamic scripture, when there is in fact no such mandate. Ultimately, the film seems Sembene’s own war on terror, particularly the terror by which religion is twisted into a means to justify a violent end — just as Collé’s invoking of the moolaadé seems particularly poetic in its justice. One cultural myth has been employed to defeat another. Enough to give hope to one African village and, perchance, the world.
MOOLAADÉ | Written and directed by OUSMANE SEMBENE | Released by New Yorker Films | At the NuWilshire