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Review: Moolaadé

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

Photo: New Yorker Films

In We regret to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Philip Gourevitch’s luminous document of the genocide the left nearly one million people dead in Rwanda in the early ‘90s, the New Yorker writer traced the dissent between Tutsi and Hutu people in the country 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 Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé, the conflict is not between different tribes of people but between men and women, and the issue is not genocide but female circumcision, a mandate of mutilation 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. Everything is a symbol, and the forceful symmetry of Sembène’s compositions is felt everywhere from the stirring battle of the sexes that closes the film to the very title of the film, a reference to the “protection” Collé Ardo Gallo Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly) offers the frightened girls who run to her home. In his 1975 masterwork 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 cartoonish 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). The polemical Moolaadé 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

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