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The strength of women
A region 2 DVD review of MOOLAADÉ by Slarek
 

It's funny the thoughts that occur to you. I remember not so long ago, for instance, listening to some twaddle about how the right to hunt and kill animals for fun has been an essential part of countryside life for centuries and thinking that the very worst reason for doing anything is tradition. Think about it for a moment – you can do something because it helps alleviate poverty, or improves living standards, or even contributes to the good of society at large, but to do something solely because someone did it last year and the year before seems a little ridiculous. It is the action of sheep, of the fabled concept of lemmings. But when that so-called tradition involves the suffering of either man or beast, then 'ridiculous' is no longer a strong enough word, and an altogether more appropriate adjective is called for.

There is always an inherent danger in one culture using its own standards to judge another, but there are some practices that few enlightened people anywhere would regard as anything but barbaric. High up on that list must be the practice of female circumcision, a procedure that involves the surgical removal of the female clitoris and labia at a young age, one that in a disturbing number of cases results in the death of the patient. This is not that surprising when you consider that the procedure is performed under often unhygienic conditions with anything from razor blades to slivers of glass. Its practice, once quite widespread, is now largely restricted to specific regions of Africa, and although it is often associated with the Muslim faith, it is actually a cultural practice that has no religious barriers. Although religious arguments have been put forward in its defence, they hold little water, even with many of those of similar faith. Stripped down to its basics, the reasons are grimly familiar: the clitoris has only one function, to provide pleasure for a woman during the sexual act, and in strictly patriarchal, dogma-led societies, the very idea of this is seen as somehow wicked and must therefore be stopped. But strip away the cultural and religious trappings and the answer is much more basic – by removing any chance of a woman enjoying sex, even the most brutal and unpleasant of men can take a wife and be reasonably certain that she will not be tempted to sleep with someone else. Effectively, it functions as a particularly nasty and very permanent chastity belt. It's not about religion or tradition or culture, it's about control and subjugation.

In the realms of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene is a legendary figure. The first African director to achieve international success (in 1966 with La Noire de…/Black Girl), he now has 13 features to his name, and having reached the ripe age of 81 he shows no sign of mellowing out. Indeed, Moolaadé has all the hallmarks of a work made by a politically driven angry young man, but is executed with the skilled restraint of a film-maker of considerable experience.

Although the film evolved in part from Sembene's own dismay at the practice of female genital mutilation, or 'purification' as it is dressed up here, the act itself is initially a background detail, a catalyst for a story of defiance, determination and non-conformity, of strong women refusing to accept the male imposed status quo, of the traditional in conflict with the modern, of the erosion of cultural identity by the march of globalisation. Yes, the film really is that multi-layered, but it never shouts its messages, allowing them instead to emerge from a deceptively simple story of a woman who takes a stand and refuses to be bullied into submission by her peers.

Some plot. In an unnamed African village, six girls who are facing 'purification' flee the ceremony. Four of them ask protection of Collé Gallo Ardo Sy, a mother who, after losing two daughters to botched circumcisions some years earlier, refused to allow her only surviving daughter to undergo the procedure. She invokes 'moolaadé', which is akin to the western asylum, but based in folklore and believed to have real consequences for anyone who dares to break it. She marks her doorway with a rope that becomes as effective a barrier as a steel portcullis on a castle, which the protected girls and the 'salindana' – female elders who carry out the purification ceremonies – fear to cross. Mind you, the sight of a determined Collé and her imposing co-wife Kawako bearing large machetes may also have some influence here. Matters are complicated by the impending wedding of Collee's daughter Amsatou to Doucouré, the son of wealthy and influential village ruler Dougoutigui. Doucouré is soon to return from France, but Collé's stand angers the elders, who begin openly voicing the belief that no-one would ever marry a 'bilakoro', a girl who has not been cut.

For the village men folk, Collé's non-cooperation becomes a symbol of female disobedience, and in their hasty search for a reactive response they blame the educational effect of radio, a symbol of modernity and the corrupting influence of the outside world. Unwilling to break the moolaadé, they round up all of the radios in the village and burn them. But the outside world is increasingly encroaching on the village and its ways, symbolised most starkly by the return of Doucouré, whose time spent in Paris has changed his attitude to local customs and represents both a way forward for his people and the corrupting influence of more affluent countries. Unable and unwilling to touch Doucouré, the villagers eventually round on amiable traveling dealer and womaniser Mercenaire, another link with changing times who is forced to make his own stand against the cruelty of tradition, and pay the price for his beliefs.

The stand-off between Collé and the traditionalists is compellingly handled, in part because of Fatoumata Coulibaly's determined performance as Collé, but also thanks to Sembene's deft direction, aligning us completely with Collé and her girls without ever hitting us over the head with his reasoning. But just when it seems as if Collé cannot fail, her husband Ciré returns home and the film shifts to a more sobering gear, bringing us swiftly down to earth and reminding us very bluntly of where this society's balance of power lies. As Ciré has brutal intercourse with Collé, the key underlying theme moves to centre stage, with a distressing flashback to Collé's own mutilation and a post coital bath that suggests that sex, for Collé, has been rendered an act of sufferance. Once again executed with admirable subtlety, its a sequence that nonetheless chilled me to the bone.

If the final scenes smack of wish fulfillment, they also succeed as a call to defiance, a suggestion that no law, no belief, and no tradition is so deeply entrenched that it cannot be challenged. In this respect the film reaches far beyond local issues to universal themes of injustice, protest and change. The fight may be hard, but it is nonetheless worth taking up if, as a world, we are to move forward in any sort of unison.

Sembene tells his story with compelling attention to small detail and character, his complex but still unforced layering creating a powerful polemic in persuasively dramatic clothing. It's a moving, involving and inspiring work that is also deeply satisfying as character-led storytelling, and as unflashy but assured a piece of film-making as you'll see all year.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the transfer displays a little grain and very slight shimmering here and there but for the most part looks gorgeous, showcasing Dominique Gentil's rich cinematography handsomely. It really impresses in its detail, colour and especially contrast range, with excellent shadow detail and solid black levels, no mean feat given the dark skin tones and bright, sun lit exteriors.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack boasts fine clarity and sometimes effective separation. This is not a film that cries out for a 5.1 track and the stereo track here does the job well.

The subtitles sit a tad high in the picture area but are otherwise very clear. It should be noted for anyone who saw the film in the cinema that the British film print's somewhat unorthodox (and distracting) use of capitals to emphasise key words – MOOLADÉ, CUT, PURIFICATION, etc. – has not been reproduced here.

extra features

Interview with Ousmane Sembene (25:20) is anamorphic widescreen and conducted in French but subtitled very clearly in English. The director talks about the process of setting the film up with a multi-cultural crew, working with the actors, his own approach to cinema, and his views on female genital mutilation.

The Making-of Documentary (24:46) is considerably more substantial than the standard EPK and provides an intriguing look behind the scenes during the making of the film and includes interviews with cast and crew members about both the film and the subject matter. It benefits greatly from being properly shot by a documentary team rather than made up grabbed DV footage, as is too often the case (though a few wobbly DV inserts do appear). All conversations are conducted in French with large, clear English subtitles.

Forward Promotional Film (7:12) is a short promotional film for the Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development (aka FORWARD), who are campaigning against child marriages and female genital mutilation. The information given on what constitutes 'type 3' mutilation should horrify any sane person who hears it. This is clearly a valuable organisation that deserves to be promoted and actively supported.

The Theatrical Trailer (1:31) is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 but taken from what looks like a VHS copy of the US trailer. It's still a useful inclusion that sells the film well.

Ousmane Sembene Filmography is just that, with no elaboration on particular films.

summary

After our cinema screening of Moolaadé, one of my colleagues who once spent some time in Africa and lived and worked in many villages said, "No-one films African village life like Sembene." As a comment on the film it may seem to be focusing on the small detail instead of the big picture, but it is this very detail that helps make the film such a beautifully layered cinematic experience. Moolaadé is a compelling and utterly persuasive drama of religious, cultural and gender politics – fabulously shot and convincingly performed, it is as intellectually stimulating as it is emotionally involving, and its cry for change should not go unheard.

The film is very nicely presented on Artificial Eye's region 2 disk, with a first rate transfer backed up by a couple of sturdy extra features and a promotional film that certainly had me head straight to the web site (www.forwarduk.org.uk). With so little African cinema available on DVD in the UK this would be an important release anyway, but it stands on its quality and should be considered essential viewing for anyone with a passion for world (for 'world' read 'true') cinema and who appreciates drama with real political bite.

Moolaadé

Senegal/France 2004
120 mins
director
Ousmane Sembene
starring
Fatoumata Coulibaly
Maïmouna Hélène
Diarra
Salimata Traoré

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
Bambara/French
subtitles
English
extras
Interview with Ousmane Sembene
Behind the scenes documentary
Theatrical trailer
Forward promotional video
Ousmane Sembene filmography
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
14 November 2005
review posted
10 November 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews