Moolaadé – Ousmane Sembène (2004)
The first film in my African cinema ventures takes place in a small, rural village in Burkina Faso, and is a drama highlighting the pressing social issue of female genital mutilation. Although the subject matter is pretty heavy and it emphasises an important message, it isn’t quite as heavy as it sounds, with a somewhat lighthearted approach and scenes of comic relief, whilst still maintaining to severity of the issue. For the director, Ousmane Sembène of Senegal, (known for ‘Black Girl’, 1996) Moolaadé was his final film, on which he worked strenuous hours on set (refusing to take breaks in order to get the film finished) at the age of 81, dying some years later at 84.
The film begins on the village’s day designated to cutting, (the act of female genital mutilation). In anticipation of this day, which they know will be horrific, painful and potentially fatal as other girls in the village have died during, six girls young girls aged 4-9 flee their neighbourhood. Four of the girls seek magical protection from Colle, a woman troubled so deeply by her own experience of FGM (which almost killed her) that she refused to have her own daughter cut, accepting that it is taboo/not acceptable for men to marry uncut women for the safety of her daughter. The film’s title ‘Moolaade’ refers to this magical protection, symbolised by a colourful rope stretching across the village entrance, meaning that the ‘Salindana’ (the group of women in the community who carry out the FGM, which they call ‘purification’) cannot enter to collect the girls, as stepping over it will trigger a curse upon them. Colle is the only person with the power to then revert the Moolaade, and throughout the film becomes under increasing pressure to utter the words as the disapproval of her actions ripple through the community.
As he is set to marry Colle’s daughter, Ibrahima, a member former of the community returns from his new home in France, bringing radios, a small television and more progressive ideas than those in the village. When the village’s authority figures, a group of men named ‘elders’ realise that alongside the Moolaade, the radios (on which presenters discuss the place of FGM in Islam, and that it is increasingly considered wrong) are ‘corrupting’ the ideas of the women, and order them to be confiscated. Despite the efforts of the elders, an air of resilience persists in the community, leading the relatives of Colle’s husband to convince him to beat the Moolaade-ending words out of her.
The film depicts a community struggling to come to terms with the changing world, some members desperately attempting to hold onto their traditions and refusing to see them for what they are, whilst others (the women and Ibrahima) pressure the community to change their ways. Though the film has much spirit and optimism, there is a lot of death which shows the severity of its subject matter. Two of the girls commit suicide to avoid being cut, one dies after the procedure and a local merchant is murdered by the elders for standing up for Colle. The message of the film is clear, its characters show the many forms of devastation caused by female genital mutilation, a harsh scar on Colle’s stomach a stark reminder of the risks women face because of it. Still, the film has spirit and is a strangely optimistic representation of a community facing change. A lovely and important film to start my African segment, hopefully I’ll get round to watching more of Sembene’s work soon!