Exploring the world through global cinema

Sooner Or Later

This week, worlds collide and traditions are called into question in the West African nation of Burkina Faso as one woman decides to take a stand against a long-practiced and frequently fatal custom.

Moolaadé

(2004) Written & Directed by Ousmane Sembene

“Any other mother would have done what I did.”

A group of children plea for sanctuary from the dangers of an old tradition in Moolaade.

In veteran African film-maker Ousmane Sembene’s final feature, the viewer is transported to a remote village in Burkina Faso, where one woman has dared to stand against the long-held local tradition of ‘purification’, the euphemistic term for circumcision in prepubescent girls. Giving sanctuary to a group of children due to undergo the often fatal rite of passage, and with seemingly the entire village against her, the woman’s only recourse is to enact the moolaadé, or ‘magical protection’, which none dare oppose. Then her troubles really begin. While the film’s anti-circumcision stance will certainly be preaching mainly to the choir and its construction fairly conventional both in terms of storytelling and production, Moolaadé’s subject matter cannot fail to strike a chord in the viewer, dramatically bringing to life a controversial custom that still affects the lives of many today.

Burkina Faso is not the only country where the practice continues (nor is it a practice exclusive to some Western African nations), however a 2006 study by the World Health Organization found that approximately 72.5% of Burkinabé girls and women were circumcised, making the Senegalese director’s choice of location a highly valid one. In the film, the ‘purification’, carried out by an elite group of women in the tribe – importantly underscoring that proponents of the tradition are not wholly defined by gender – is seen to be highly traumatic and physically damaging to the victim, and frequently fatal.

The practice of female circumcision is commonplace in Burkina Faso, where the story is set.

The term ‘purification’ speaks volumes of the perception of females and sexuality held by those in favour of the custom. Other arguments supporting the practice as expressed in Moolaadé speak of a long-held tradition traveling so far back into the mists of time that no-one seems able to explain the actual reason for it, and finally, that it is a requirement of Islam. Certainly there will be many Muslims who will take issue with this, and Sembene makes a point of showing Burkina Faso’s complex cultural potpourri. On top of its indigenous animist roots, the society also shows traces of its French colonial past, as well as being a melting pot of many religions, the lines between which are heavily blurred. Add to this the increasing influence of modern technology and it is not hard to comprehend how beliefs have played a steady game of Chinese Whispers.

Indeed technology is seen as the greatest threat of all to the preservation of the strongly patriarchal society, with the village serving as a microcosmic stand-in for many cultures the world over. With the dreaded radio spewing forth subversive ideas from distant (and not-so-distant) lands, the local women find themselves increasingly able to articulate a ‘worrying’ desire for independence and opposition to values never-before challenged. A perhaps inevitable scene reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451 comes in answer to this rebellion, though in a wonderful display of irony, the most celebrated man in the village is the only one to have swapped the illiberal world of the tribe for the free market corridors of corporate France. Those responsible for challenging the status quo fight their corner in the flickering shadows of burning torches, mob rule and genuine fear. Not all, however, are so easily cowed into submission.

Moolaadé’s subject matter cannot fail to strike a chord in the viewer, dramatically bringing to life a controversial custom that still affects the lives of many today.”

When subversive ideas from the outside world threaten the old ways, the lines of communication are quickly cut.

The family at the epicentre of the drama are no less a microcosm of their own. The product of a polygynous arrangement, the head of the house is a moderate Muslim with three wives, under pressure by his contemporaries, particularly his brother, to reign in his ‘troublesome’ spouses. Traumatised by the loss of her children to the purification, Collé Ardo, the second wife, is determined that her remaining daughter will survive, even if condemned as a ‘bilakoro’ (unpurified woman), her marriage prospects will be limited. Again, Sembene is keen to demonstrate that within the confines of the patriarchal world as terrified by female sexuality as it is celebrated, male dominance is not as clear-cut as it at first appears – something that is perhaps harder to accept by a foreign audience. Within this world, women are celebrated as the bringers of life, yet only on male terms defined by a religious fear of their femininity. Only now, when the winds of change are sweeping through such societies is that fear more obviously manifest. Tellingly, it is a fear shared by some women and not by all men.

Moolaadé has an excellent and believable cast to bring this turbulent society to life, from star Fatimouta Coulibaly as the brave Collé Ardo, to Ousmane Konaté, playing her husband’s unpleasant and hardline brother, Amath. Joseph Traoré, as the victorious homecoming son Doucouré, skillfully depicts the mild-mannered success story increasingly caught between the values of two very different worlds, and special mention goes to Lala Drabo, who, though only in a supporting role, conveys the raw anguish of loss caused by the purification.

A young woman desperate to belong struggles to understand why her mother dares to be different.

For all this Moolaadé is constructed in a fairly simple and conventional way. The narrative is robbed of complexity by the strong stance against female circumcision by its writer, as opposed to simply telling the story and letting the viewers decide. Instead, the protagonists and the villains are clearly drawn, and, sympathetic to the cause, the viewer takes no journey through the story – they have already arrived from the outset. How the film is perceived in nations where female circumcision is common would presumably be an entirely different matter, and it would be interesting to find out if it has altered any viewpoints.

The foreign viewer will also pay more attention to the cultural depictions of the colorful appearance of Burkinabé culture, of its tribal nature, its sounds, and the different behaviour of its people. It is as much a window into another world as it is a commentary on the struggle against a dangerous custom. This though is brought to the film by its overseas audience: its director does not go out of his way to highlight the culture as a spectacle in its own right. It perhaps does not matter therefore that on the production side, Moolaadé is not an adventurous foray into film-making.  While I would have preferred a less-biased and therefore more confident approach, it is not as if I didn’t go into the film with a firm view on the subject of female circumcision myself. Taking a stand on the issue is ultimately, what Moolaadé is all about.

For this reason above all, I highly recommend the film, and of course, foreign viewers like myself will also discover one of the multi-layered cultures of Western Africa within of which it is such an ingrained part. Although not a cinematic masterpiece, Moolaadé is a very moving and very human drama that I hope will continue to get its point across in places where that message needs to be heard most.

*****

Next Time

World On Film travels to rural Burma where three young boys, enchanted by the prettiest girl in the village, discover the true meaning of love and life in the Buddhist-themed tale, Pyu Pyu.

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