Monday, June 06, 2005

Review - Moolaadé

The latest film from African director Ousmane Sembene, a towering figure in the history of black cinema, tackles a very difficult and provocative subject matter with subtlety and grace. Moolaadé is a film about female circumcision, a process which is known among those who perform it as ‘purification’. The consequences of this act are serious; girls often suffer enormous haemorrhaging and die during the operation, and it can cause numerous problems during intercourse and childbirth in later life. This ritual is still commonplace in 38 of the 54 African countries, a fact which clearly appals Sembene. His film is an attempt to bring this subject to the attention of the wider world, and a plea for this barbaric act to be abolished.

Have I already lost you? I agree that an African film about female circumcision doesn’t sound like the best evening’s entertainment, but Moolaadé is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking which will surely touch anyone who experiences it. For sure, Sembene’s film is an angry, polemical slice of political cinema, but it is also a beautiful and compelling human drama, and an eye-opening look at day-to-day African life.

Moolaadé is set in a small village in Burkina Faso. The process of ‘purification’ is thrown into chaos when six young girls flee the ceremony. Two of them escape to the city, while the remaining four run towards the home of a local woman named Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly). Colle was purified as a child and, as a result, lost two of her children in childbirth. Seven years ago, Colle refused to allow her daughter Amsatou (Salimata Traore) to be cut, and the children seeking refuge with her now hope she’ll extend the same Moolaadé (protection) to them. Colle runs a simple piece of coloured cord along the gate of her house and refuses to give up the children. The elders and the Salindana (the women who perform the ritual) cannot cross the line for fear of invoking the curse of Moolaadé.

So the stage is set for a tense stand-off in the village, as Colle’s actions defy the wishes of the menfolk and upset the traditional hierarchy of the society. This is all laid out by Sembene in an accessible, intriguing and entertaining manner during the film’s opening twenty minutes. The arrival of a local tradesman, known as Mercenaire (Dominique Zeida), is a cause of local excitement as he brings them food, clothes and batteries, but at vastly inflated prices. Mercenaire also hangs around during the film to provide an outsider’s viewpoint, and observes the atrocious practices with increasing astonishment and anger. His conscience eventually forces him to act, whatever the consequences, and this character who began the film as a comic aside, a touch of light relief, becomes a major and tragic figure.

Such is the beautifully simple and effective way Sembene creates these characters, and develops the various tensions between them. The village elders decide that the women’s rebellious spirit is fed by disruptive outside influences and they order all their radios to be burned, but when a native returns from Paris after proving a successful businessman, he brings even more outside influence, and his more enlightened views on the issues facing the village threaten the order of things even further. The winds of change are blowing through this village, and they grow stronger with each stand Colle takes.

What a wonderful film this is. Sembene, at the age of 82, puts his story together with effortless grace and makes his points in an understated but incisive manner. Moolaadé also benefits from Dominique Gentil’s glorious cinematography, which celebrates the vibrancy and beauty of the African way of life, and the marvellous musical score of traditional music. Throughout, the authenticity of the film is never in doubt, the performances are enthralling, and the pain on display is very real - but so is the indomitable spirit of these people.

Perhaps critics will argue that the women’s rebellion against the general order of things would not be tolerated so easily in such a patriarchal society? Perhaps, but Sembene is clearly biased in his presentation, and who wouldn’t be, given the terrible aggression against femininity the film depicts? When I saw the film, a number of audience members cheered at the rousing climax, and it’s easy to understand why. This is the reaction great cinema can provoke.

Moolaadé is unquestionably one of the finest films of the year, and I cannot overstate how much it is a work of such vital importance. Ousmane Sembene’s ability to take this subject matter and make such a moving, mind-expanding work of art from it is testament to the director’s filmmaking craft, his wit and intelligence, and, above all, his humanity.