Ousmane Sambène makes a daring and important statement against female genital mutilation and speaks for the necessity of change and modernization

Moolaadé (film)

Moolaadé (2004)

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Ous­mane Sem­bène. Star­ring Fa­touma­ta Coulibaly, Maimouna Hélène Di­ar­ra, Sal­i­ma­ta Tra­oré, Do­minique Zeï­da, Mah Com­paoré and Théophile Sowié.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, more than 200 mil­lion girls and women alive to­day in 30 coun­tries in Africa, Asia and the Mid­dle East have un­der­gone fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion, a harm­ful set of pro­ce­dures that con­sist of par­tial or to­tal re­moval of the ex­ter­nal fe­male gen­i­talia for non-med­ical rea­sons and can cause se­vere bleed­ing, in­fec­tions, com­pli­ca­tions in child­birth and the risk of new­born deaths. It has no health ben­e­fits and is rec­og­nized in­ter­na­tion­al­ly as a vi­o­la­tion of the hu­man rights of girls and women. Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Sene­galese film­mak­er Ous­mane Sem­bène, Moolaadé is an im­por­tant film that ex­pos­es the ab­sur­di­ty of such prac­tices, ar­gu­ing for a ne­ces­si­ty of change when it comes to these bar­bar­ic tra­di­tions and mak­ing it clear that the prob­lem lies in a deep-root­ed gen­der inequality.

Set in a col­or­ful Burk­i­na Faso vil­lage where men live with their sev­er­al wives and chil­dren in clay hous­es that have no doors, the film be­gins when four girls es­cape the cir­cum­ci­sion rite (or “pu­rifi­ca­tion”) and ask Col­lé Gal­lo Ardo Sy (Fa­touma­ta Coulibaly) for pro­tec­tion. Col­lé is the sec­ond of her hus­band’s three wives and also re­fused ten years be­fore to have her daugh­ter Amasatou (Sal­i­ma­ta Tra­oré) cir­cum­cised. To help the girls, she casts a “Moolaadé,” a “mag­i­cal pro­tec­tion” in­di­cat­ed by a sym­bol­ic rope that pre­vents the women el­ders who car­ry out the prac­tice (the Salin­dana) from en­ter­ing the house. It can only be re­voked by Col­lé her­self, and her husband’s rel­a­tives want to per­suade him to pub­licly whip her into re­vok­ing it.

It shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing that those who are most sup­port­ive of the girls’ mu­ti­la­tion are the men of the vil­lage, who rep­re­sent the sta­tus quo and in­sist that “pu­rifi­ca­tion dates from back” and is re­quired by Is­lam (a very ques­tion­able claim). They bear gifts and nice clothes for the “pu­ri­fied” girls and re­in­force the out­ra­geous myth that a “bi­lako­ro” (un­cir­cum­cised) woman smells bad, can­not have chil­dren and there­fore is un­fit for mar­riage. Sem­bène shows the women’s sub­mis­sion in sev­er­al mo­ments, like when Amasatou kneels in the pres­ence of two men or when the el­ders’ coun­cil de­cide to con­fis­cate and burn the women’s ra­dios for think­ing that they teach them to be sub­ver­sive and to be­lieve in the idea of equality.

The men make it quite clear that their wives are not equal, giv­ing them per­mis­sion to do only what they men con­sid­er ac­cept­able and de­mand­ing Collé’s hus­band to “tame her” with a whip. The women ac­cept to fol­low the tra­di­tions, re­signed (“It will be said you in­spired them,” one of them says to the el­dest wife of Collé’s hus­band, to con­vince her to re­turn the girls). They re­ceive mon­ey for the mu­ti­la­tion of their chil­dren and don’t fight back when their chil­dren die of this dan­ger­ous pro­ce­dure (one of the girls fled be­cause her sis­ter had died). Moolaadé is very di­rect when show­ing the hor­rors of be­ing a woman in such a place, and the ac­tors do a great job to make us an­gry that things like that exist.

Sem­bène di­rects his film in a way that makes it feel like a doc­u­men­tary, with the use of nat­ur­al light and nev­er draw­ing at­ten­tion to him­self — even when he in­dulges in some­thing a bit more fan­tas­tic, like when the girls see the Salin­dana as fright­en­ing masked crea­tures sur­round­ed by a blue fog. The yel­low­ish cin­e­matog­ra­phy em­pha­sizes hot col­ors, yet there is also a nice use of a blue fil­ter in a hor­rif­ic mo­ment that shows a girl scream­ing be­fore be­ing mu­ti­lat­ed. But the most re­veal­ing mo­ment in Moolaadé, how­ev­er, is when we see the mu­ti­la­tion of a child in par­al­lel with a sex scene, which cre­ates an ev­i­dent as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the vi­o­lence com­mit­ted against the body of a girl and a mu­ti­lat­ed woman who seems like be­ing raped when hav­ing sex.

With a clever script that uses the char­ac­ter of the mer­chant Mer­ce­naire (Do­minique Zeï­da) as a moral com­pass (he is out­raged by the way Col­lé is treat­ed by her hus­band and calls a pe­dophile a man who would mar­ry an 11-year-old girl), Moolaadé of­fers us a peek into an al­most alien re­al­i­ty. There is a hi­er­ar­chy of wives in each house and ap­par­ent­ly no se­crets (there are no doors, peo­ple just walk in with­out knock­ing). We see a woman lick­ing a bat­tery to see if it can still be used for her ra­dio, and one kilo­gram of bread is mea­sured as a uni­ty (one kilo­gram is one bread, ap­par­ent­ly). There is a huge anthill and a clay mosque in the vil­lage too, and Sem­bène makes all these de­tails fascinating.

But what is most fas­ci­nat­ing (and iron­ic) is how Col­lé man­ages to stop peo­ple from car­ry­ing out a bar­bar­ic tra­di­tion that is based on a stu­pid be­lief by mak­ing use of an­oth­er be­lief — a “mag­i­cal pro­tec­tion” for the girls. It all leads to a rel­a­tive­ly op­ti­mistic end­ing that may feel a bit naïve but is cer­tain­ly nec­es­sary. The last scene is in fact ex­treme­ly telling in its cry for mod­ern­iza­tion. Let’s only hope that more peo­ple will watch this film and un­der­stand that there should be no space in our times for hor­ren­dous prac­tices that only di­min­ish and bring harm to women.


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