Bestriding the line between global documentary and social exposé, Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter lingers for one squeamish hour on the resilient African tradition of female genital mutilation (or FGM, as it is bureaucratically abbreviated). Juxtaposing interviews with the immigrant of the title—a Malian excision victim seeking asylum in the United States to protect her daughter from a similar fate—and footage captured in her homeland during FGM rituals, the film ponderously examines the practice’s tribal significance.
The expected observations are repeated, ad nauseam, including not only vocal support of clitoridectomy as a device to mitigate the natural proclivity of women toward sexual perfidy, but step-by-step descriptions of the procedure itself as well—which up until a decade ago was performed en masse with a single blood-laden scalpel. This provides a wealth of teeth-gritting moments, but the filmmakers neglect to provide more nuanced context that might tourniquet their audience’s befuddlement after the initial shock wears off. We’re never told, for example, precisely how FGM proliferated so profusely in Islamic nations, so while it appears to possess an aura of sanctity comparable to male circumcision, the lack of historical detail recklessly demonizes its practitioners (both male and female) rather than discovering how they came to inherit the tradition.
Still, the facts of the ritual’s steadfast observance are as culturally fascinating as they are tragic (for example, it’s common for young girls to be abducted by relatives or neighbors and excised without their parents’ knowledge or permission), and in its frequent conversations with female refugees, Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter probes the subaltern core of Mali’s feminine psychology. Victims of FGM need to convince themselves that they have been abused—by counting the number of weekly deaths from excision, or by recounting the resulting difficulty in childbirth, or by complaining that while husbands support FGM, they favor the sensation of a complete vulva. It occurs to none of these women that even the concept of mutilation may be inherently damaging or subjugating without the attached risks. What Malian society needs is a distaff system of corporeal demystification and celebration—only a culture saturated with intense yonic fear could view asexualizing violence as empowering.
Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter premieres June 21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2009. Click here for screening information.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.