Seven years before the start of Moolaadé, Colle Ardo refuses to allow her daughter to be circumcised by the exciseuses. Seven years on, knowledge of this act prompts four young girls to seek her Protection from the ritual Purification. In her husband’s absence, Colle takes the girls in. A rope across the entrance to the family’s yard symbolises the extent of her Moolaadé, or ‘protective powers’. It is a barrier the exciseuses dare not breach. Thus, ancient custom is used to challenge age-old tradition – in the name of progress.
Moolaadé scooped the Un Certain Regard award at the 2004 Cannes Festival and is due to be released in the UK in June 2005. The film’s director, Senegalese Ousmane Sembene, is widely recognised as the ‘father’ of African cinema. His view: that ‘when women progress, society progresses’. At a time when female genital mutilation is practised in 38 of the 54 countries of the African Union, this is a hugely important film.
Set in a West African village, Moolaadé immerses the viewer in the greens and reds and ochres of Africa. There is dance, there is song, there is storytelling and most importantly, there is the way things are done. Women answer to their husbands and the young to their elders. Within the family hierarchy, the first wife has authority over those wives junior to her, and the eldest brother over his younger siblings. The (male) village elders are outraged by Colle’s defiance of their customs. They decree that her husband should command her to break the Moolaadé on his return.
The film is peppered with delicious characters. There is the loquacious town spokesman and the wily mercenaire – irredeemable flirt and slippery salesman. Particularly enjoyable is the relationship between Colle and her husband’s first wife. They have a mutual respect for one another: Colle, for her elder, and the older woman, for the feisty younger wife daring to fight battles she could not. This is a society in which women are not openly defiant. Their victories are subtle, won by stealth or through the embarrassment of their menfolk. Colle’s stance upsets the status quo.
Amongst the women in the village, sex with their menfolk is endured. After all, one of the results of female genital mutilation is to impede a woman’s enjoyment of sex – truly a subjugating act. During sexual intercourse, Colle relives the experience of her own circumcision as a child. It is particularly poignant when her daughter, Amsatu, later rebukes Colle for preventing her from being cut as a girl. Amsatu fears that as a Bilakoro, she will be unable to marry the son of the chief elder, as had been intended.
With the exception of her co-wives, Colle’s protection of the young girls and her stance against genital mutilation are unsupported by the village women. What is it about women that they champion adherence to traditions detrimental to themselves? Is it because they themselves have endured it? Perhaps there is a need to believe in the acceptability of a ritual in order to be able to justify it to oneself. Otherwise, what was once a traditional ceremony becomes an assault, and feelings of righteousness become feelings of violation.
There is fear in the fury of the elders. Fired up by Colle’s stand on circumcision, it is declared that all radios should be cast out, to limit the influence of the outside world on the village womenfolk. In maintaining ignorance, there can be domination. Ruing the loss of the radios that help them sleep at night, the women lament that ‘our men want to lock up our minds.’ A pile of radios grows in the village square, outside the mosque built by the village ancestors and the anthill symbolic of a Moolaadé of old. The film reaches its climax when Colle is beaten by her husband to force her to remove the Moolaadé she has imposed. Everyone in the village takes sides, but the only person prepared to intervene is the mercenaire – to his great cost.
Such is the charm of Moolaadé that the viewer is sucked into the film unwittingly before being reminded that it is about a debasing, debilitating, dangerous custom and indeed about life and death. It is a film about men and women, ignorance and knowledge, tradition and modernity, power and submission. ‘The film will stir debate in Africa’, Ousmane said. ‘I make militant films and this one will serve as a basis to bring men and women together to talk.’ Ultimately, it is about society’s reluctance to change in the face of the truth. But films like this one give us hope.