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.
(2004) Written & Directed by Ousmane Sembene
“Any other mother would have done what I did.”
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
The long journey begins with ‘Osama’, a 2003 Afghan drama shot on location in Kabul, written and directed by Siddiq Barmak. Click below to view the official trailer:
Acts Of Desperation
‘Osama’ attempts to give a snapshot of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, focusing chiefly upon a young girl forced to disguise herself as a boy in order to put food on the table for her family, of whom all the male members have been killed. Women were forbidden to work under Taliban law, and the film makes clear the terror and hopelessness of a war-torn world held under an oppressive medieval, religious doctrine. Billed as the first Afghan film following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, it is perhaps inevitable that they should be the subject. For the most part, I was entirely drawn into the bleak and unjust landscape of ‘Osama’, although the film is not without some faults, with certain key elements not adequately explored and an ending that for me did not entirely work.
Filmed on location in Kabul, ‘Osama’ needs do little to show the horrors of war – the evidence is all around and the locals are so used to it that many have never known anything different. The complete undermining of Afghan civilisation by the Taliban is omnipresent in every scene where they are not in frame. Their introduction is potently out of shot, highlighting the facelessness with which they are viewed. To an extent, it is a shame that their motives and background are never explored in any depth, sometimes reducing them to the level of fanatical religious boogeymen – propaganda-like in its execution, which has the unfortunate result of oversimplifying the film’s discourse. This is not a question of sympathy, but of avoiding demonisation and the same level of ignorance practiced by the overlords under scrutiny. Unless of course Barmak was suggesting that the Taliban’s two-dimensional nature is the sum-total of their being, which I don’t think was the case.
It is perfectly understandable, however – the treatment the Afghans received, the complete destruction of both their lives and any semblance of hope they may have had will naturally colour their opinions of their oppressors, in much the same way that the most rational of Holocaust survivors have simply been pushed to too horrible an extreme to even want to bother with objectivity. It could even be argued that a film delivering a message about extremism must be similarly one-sided in its presentation if the audience, far-removed, are even going to begin to appreciate the point being made. Coming halfway towards understanding the effect of sustained terror on the psyche is the furthest an outsider may manage. At the same time, however, the only way to defuse this hatred and prevent it from perpetuating endlessly throughout history is to avoid demonising the enemy. In the end, it may be the greatest struggle of all.
” ‘Osama’ needs do little to show the horrors of war – the evidence is all around and the locals are so used to it that many have never known anything different”
And importantly, the skewed approach does not undermine the film’s central aim: to portray the total subjugation of women, leading to a life of oppression, poverty and destitution, wherein there is no chance of escape. Central to this is the young girl herself, who at no time convinces in her attempts to hide her identity making the conclusion to her storyline inevitable. It’s entirely believable that this practice would have been perpetuated by a desperate people in a world where only men have any authority whatsoever, yet since the producers are keen to make it clear that women are the the greatest victims of Taliban rule, any such attempt is utterly impossible. The absolute terror and misery conveyed by Marina Golbahari as the title character is powerful and convincing, yet horrifying precisely because it is so. Obtaining his cast from the general public, director Siddiq Barmak has something of a mixed bag, with some performers unable to match their contemporaries, yet Golbahari is clearly not so much acting a lot of the time as reliving. ‘Osama’ simply would not be anywhere near as powerful and occasionally gut-wrenching as it is without her efforts.
“The absolute terror and misery conveyed by Marina Golbahari as the title character is powerful and convincing, yet horrifying precisely because it is so.”
The film’s ending took me back to the sheer hopelessness summed up in the climax to Joan Chen’s ‘Xiu Xiu’, depicting the forced relocation of youths during the Chinese Cultural revolution. Yet in ‘Osama’, I found the film’s closing to be somewhat abrupt and lacking. Apparently, Barmak did have an alternate ending in mind that he later felt would undermine the story’s theme. On the one hand, it could be argued that ongoing misery has no ending, yet it doesn’t change my feeling that the credits rolled too soon. This is ironic really, as I felt the film’s overall length was more than enough to get its message across, and ironic further still, considering that for the central characters, there is no ending to their suffering. Or it may be that I simply didn’t want to accept the final scene as an ending.
However, ‘Osama’ does not fail to convey its message, not to mention at least some of the horrors suffered by the story’s victims, for I don’t think anyone on this side of the screen could ever truly understand unless they had seen it for themselves. Storywise, I felt it needed further development of certain elements and more thought into some of the editing, but its central aim to invoke feelings of disgust and despair at the destruction of lives in the aim of ignorance and fanaticism is firmly intact. If you’ve never seen an Afghan film before, this is not a bad place to start.
Coming up next on World On Film: the Albanian comedy, ‘Slogans’.