I used to read a lot of African literature and watched a lot of documentaries as well but hardly any full-length movies at all. I had completely forgotten that Sembène Ousmane wasn’t only a great writer but also a highly acclaimed film director if Tom (Wuthering Expectations) hadn’t reminded me. I tried to find some of his movies and found the last film he made before his death.
Moolaadé is an exciting movie because it offers such an awesome combination of different elements. It is life-affirming, optimistic, critical, humanist and very esthetic at the same time.
Moolaadé is a movie about female circumcision, tradition, change and the status of women in a polygamous, patriarchal society. One cannot watch this movie without being profoundly disturbed but it’s thought-provoking and not depressing at all.
One day, four little girls, seek refuge in the compound of Collé. She is the favourite and second wife of her husband. It is known that her daughter is the only girl in the whole village who hasn’t been circumcised. Her daughter is the fiancé of the eldest son of the village chief who has studied in Paris and is soon to come home. Collé knows that there will be conflict if she shelters the girls. In order to protect them she pronounces Moolaadé, magical protection. As long as one person grants another one Moolaadé the person cannot be touched or the consequences would be fatal. In order to show that Moolaadé is at work, a coloured rope is tied over the entrance of the compound.
The uproar in the village is incredible. They threaten Collé but to no avail until her husband returns and they force him to whip her in public until she revokes the Moolaadé. She remains steadfast and is, at the end, helped by an outsider, a travelling salesman.
Moolaadé shows what a trap circumcision is. The girls know how painful it is, even lethal and that many will never be able to give birth without Cesarean section. Sex will always be agony for them. Still the men do not want to marry a woman who isn’t “purified”. The girls are afraid that they will never find a husband but even more afraid to be maimed for life.
The way the movie shows how horrible circumcision is, is well-done. We don’t see anything but what we see is enough to illustrate it. The most problematic figures in the film are the women who perform the circumcision. They are truly scary.
The strength of the movie however isn’t only to show all the aspects, beliefs, traditions and conflicting interests related to circumcision but to show a way, a solution. The women decide to not accept the horrors done to their bodies anymore. In the movie it’s the act of one courageous woman, who decides to break with tradition, who triggers a wave of change.
It’s a disturbing movie but it’s optimistic as well. There are not only frustrating but a lot of comical moments too.
Western cinema, with a few exceptions seems to have forgotten that film making can be a means to trigger change, that there could be more to art than entertainment, that being engaged is an important value. Moolaadé reminded me of all this and much more.
It’s precisely movies like Moolaadé that I had in mind when I started the World Cinema Series. Movies that open a door to a world we hardly know. I liked it a lot and am pretty sure it will be one of my favourite movies this year.
Moolaadé is also a contribution to Richard’s Foreign Film Festival.