Laura CliffordFour frightened young girls rush to the home of a village elder and seek the protection of his second wife, Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly). The girls are running from the dreaded rite of genital mutilation called the Purification and Colle, an avid opponent of the brutal ritual, is the only one who can save them when declares the ancient right of Sanctuary in Moolaade.”
81-year old icon of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene, takes on the ambitious, deep-hearted task of telling the world about the primitive Senegalese custom of cutting off the genitalia of young girls that is supposed to purify them to be women untainted by desire. The young-at-heart helmer/scripter approaches this serious subject matter in a way that is thoughtful, intelligent, entertaining and eye-opening.
Colle earned a certain degree of grudging respect in the village for her decision, seven years earlier, to not permit her daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traore) to submit to the painful, often life threatening mutilation. Her personal rebellion prompts the four scared little girls to go to the strong-willed woman for help. Village law states that if Colle declares Moolaade,” or sanctuary, her door cannot be trespassed to take back the girls. This is symbolized by a simple black, red and gold rope strung across the threshold that anyone not welcome may pass.
But, “Moolaade” is much more than the struggle of a woman of conviction to protect her wards from horrific, painful and, sometimes, deadly ritual. This is a multilayered film that takes the time to show you the other sides of life in the small village. The Purification is so inured into the society that a cadre of red-robed women elders performs the cutting with great ritual, making it an unquestioned passage for all girls.
The men of the village, and their elders, fear Colle’s call for Moolaade while trying to bluff their way through the controversy, calling it a “minor domestic issue.” The return of the chief’s son, a successful businessman in Paris, may offer a solution to the dilemma as he is the fiancé to Colle’s daughter. But, the fact that Amasatou is “bilakoro” (un-purified) brings down the wrath of his father who forbids the marriage, causing a rift between father and son. Another layer of complexity is introduced with the character Mercenaire (Dominique T. Zeida), the owner of a mobile general story who plies his trade and does his best to bed the women of the village. The merchant takes on importance as his more worldly ideas force him to intervene at a critical moment for Colle.
The personal elements of “Moolaade” are held in contrast and comparison with the social attitudes and primitive rites that prevail even today – 38 African nations continue to require Purification of its female children, some as young as 4-years old. Colle’s declaration of Sanctuary brings to play ancient laws that precede the Muslim faith and the awful clitoris-severing ritual. It is interesting to watch a film from a culture where a simple multicolored rope has the power of a solid steal door in keeping out those uninvited.
The broad palate that Sembene uses to paint his layered story is so complexly interwoven that you forget that this film was, in all likelihood, made on a budget that would not even pay for a Hollywood film’s limo costs. I give it an A.
In a small Sengalese village, six young girls run away from the traditional Islamic 'purification' ritual, genital mutilation that leaves the girls with various afflictions up to and including death. Four of those girls make their way to the home of Mother Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly, "Guimba, the Tyrant"), the second wife of a village elder who has protected her own daughter, Amasatou (Salimata Traoré), from the knife. A simple rope stretched across her doorway gives these girls the sacrosanct shelter known as "Moolaadé."
Eighty-one year old Sengalese writer/director Ousmane Sembene ("Faat Kine"), the 'father' of African cinema, offers up an astoundingly complex tale of societal discord - a clash of young and old, male vs. female, modernity vs. tradition and African vs. Western civilization that is fresh and engrossing throughout. Sembene traveled through many countries to find the perfect village, and his location is a colorful site of unique, clever architecture and dirt roads that is seeing the initial encroachment of the outside world via radios and the visiting Mercenaire (Dominique Zeïda) who supplies both stale bread and batteries. "Moolaadé" is the second in a trilogy ("Faat Kine" was the first) about ordinary heroism, a trait the feminist Sembene ascribes to African women.
Collé, whose lower jaw is dyed blue, is not only up against the men of her village, but most of its women too. A girl who has not been 'purified' is a Bilakoro and looked upon as an unmarriageable whore, so not only are the Salidana, the red-robed female purifiers, up in arms, but the girls' mothers as well. Collé withstands a public beating from her husband as another conflict looms on the horizon - the arrival of the village chief's French educated son - her daughter Amasatou's betrothed.
"Moolaadé" is clearly the work of a master at the height of his craft and its sly exuberance makes it seem the work of a much younger man. Sembene addresses his central subject, female circumcision, head-on, but without resorting to shock tactics (although it is not until fifty minutes into the film that 'purification' is identified as genital mutilation). The director's use of symbolism is brilliant. He chose his village for its anthill-shaped mosque, a structure studded with sturdy sticks, like cloves in a pear, and topped with a 150 year old ostrich egg. The shape is echoed later with the pile of radios the men pry away from their wives, all still broadcasting in a global tangle of voices and music. Mercenaire, a retired military man who now provides the village's outside provisions, is a womanizer whose wares include feminine panties fluttering boldly like flags. Tellingly, it is also Mercenaire who protects Collé and offers Amasatou triple her bride price. The women's right of freedom is found amidst treacherous waters.
Sembene cleverly weaves his strands together, coming to a satisfying, if tragic and hard-won, conclusion that traditions should be viewed through the lens of the times. "Moolaadé" is one of the year's very best.
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