Review: Moolaadé

Ousmane Sembène’s polemical film resonates on a large scale.


In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch’s account of the genocide that left nearly a million people dead in Rwanda in the early ’90s, the New Yorker writer traced the dissent between Tutsi and Hutu people to a specious Hamitic myth perpetuated by the first white colonists that came to the region. The discord between the two tribes continues to run deep, and in his book Gourevitch wonders how a nation can go about eradicating something so ingrained into the public consciousness.

In writer-director Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé, the conflict isn’t between different tribes of people but between men and women, and the issue isn’t genocide but female circumcision, a mandate of mutilation that some continue to believe is required by Islam. In the film, the struggle of a Senegalese people to negotiate a modern role in the global market some 40 years after France’s exit without completely losing sight of their identity as Africans is felt in a woman’s struggle to protect a group of girls from being circumcised.

From gargantuan anthills to the tree beneath which a man sells overpriced exotic goods, every shot in Moolaadé has a strong visual point of center from which the film’s spiritual essence spills forth. Everything is a symbol, and the forceful symmetry of Sembène’s compositions is felt everywhere on the way to the stirring battle of the sexes that closes Moolaadé, whose title is a reference to the “magical protection” that Collé Ardo Gallo Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly) offers the frightened girls who run to her home trying to avoid genital cutting.


In his 1975 film Xala, Sembène similarly takes on patriarchal society in Senegal, plumbing the effects of foreign commerce in the area (the knowledge it brings and the abuse it perpetuates), evoking a man’s failure as a citizen via a castrating taboo. The strong tradition of these people is felt in Moolaadé, but Sembène suggests that some traditions are meant to be broken.

Though the patriarchal society of the film seems convinced that the horrifying mutilations that leave women resigned to lifetimes of painful sex and horrible births is somehow justified by Islamic teaching, the decision of the town’s men to separate women from their radios suggests otherwise. In cutting women off from communication with the outside world, men are essentially denying women the information they need to expose the lies of their society (the irony of men stifling female pleasure while exaggerating their own has never been lost on Sembène, and in Moolaadé this irony is the blazing subtext). This polemical film resonates on a large scale, but it’s first and foremost a reminder to the people of Africa that there are ways of surmounting the legacy of patriarchal abuses and colonialism on their continent.

 Cast: Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maimouna Hélène Diarra, Salimata Traoré, Mah Compaoré, Aminata Dao, Dominique T. Zeïda  Director: Ousmane Sembène  Screenwriter: Ousmane Sembène  Distributor: New Yorker Films  Running Time: 124 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2004  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle, his writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

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