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.
If you were asked to pin down the one fundamental instinct that drives all human relationships and indeed the shape of every society, what would you say? Travel with me to Bolivia this week as World On Film explores the ugly, but brutally honest truth of:
(2003) Written & Directed by Rodrigo Bellot
(To view a trailer, look to the bottom of the previous entry.)
In Sexual Dependency, writer/director Rodrigo Bellot delivers a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by its sexual urges, desires, and fears. Society is reduced to the hunters and their prey, the aggressive dominators and the submissive victims. Sexuality, both the need and fear of it dictate the daily lives of all, wittingly or unwittingly. Viewed through the lens of the animal, the human condition is merely a thin veneer stretched tightly over millennia of instinct. However, the film is also about the ever-changing roles of people as determined by shifting environments and perspective, which Bellot drives home through the use of a fairly uncommon and at times disconcerting film technique.
So as to ensure the central message that sexual politics and animal group dynamics are fundamental to all, Bellot and fellow co-writer Lenelle N. Moise, rather than zooming in on one small cross-section of society as representative of all humanity, present a series of loosely-connected short stories populated with a number of different social groups. To really hammer the point home and ensure the viewer doesn’t dismiss the unsettling narratives as simply the darker side of Bolivian culture, the action transfers halfway through to New York, where the same fundamentals of aggression are at work. However, the change of location also serves another crucial purpose, of which more a little later.
Another function of the loose anthology of story segments (minor characters in one become major characters in another) is to show a progression of both sexual awakening and the inevitable consequences of social groups led by dominant and aggressive leaders. Thus the first segment explores the difference between fantasy and reality as centred around a 15-year-old girl. 15, we are told, is the time when one comes of age in Bolivia (more strictly-speaking, the age of consent is when puberty has been reached), and when the testosterone-filled vultures begin to circle. However, while male dominance and aggression are undeniably the driving force of all conflicts throughout Sexual Dependency, the young girl’s unpressured curiosity and awakening sexual desires against the juggernaut of a young man whose hormones will brook no disagreement are thrown into sharp contrast with the unwitting young man forced into sexual adventure by his peers in the next segment: the message ultimately being that consent is either way irrelevant, since the weak and submissive will simply be directed by the dominant forces of the group. By the end of the film, the male victims of this natural law are no less numerous.
The third segment then shifts the focus from the weak to the sexual predator, exploring the many acts of dominance they must perform on a regular basis to remain at the centre of their world, and how these acts impact those around them. Importantly, it also delves into the insecurity of that psyche, which plays an even greater role later on. It is here that the action relocates to New York, with one of the key Bolivian characters moving there and discovering both the true fragility of the world they have built up for themselves and that the law of the jungle is the only universal constant.
In this way, the cultural shift not only reinforces the argument that basic social behavior is the same everywhere, but also demonstrates that positions of dominance are entirely relative. Here, the hunter of one world may become the prey of another, though in a film set in two countries, cultural difference in and of itself becomes a contributing factor. Besides this, the New York half of Sexual Dependency goes on to explore themes not already addressed earlier, such as homophobia, rape, and reinforcing heterosexual group dynamics north of the border. The overall progression from innocence to revelation and fall continues throughout and the final segments begin to blur together in a chaotic mess (carefully structured) so as to echo the crushing mental and physical pain brought on by fear, loathing, victimization, realization, and the fall from innocence. The sex in Sexual Dependency bears no relation to the fantasy of the expectant imagination: this is the physical act borne of instinct, aggression, and indeed, dependency.
“[Sexual Dependency is] a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by its sexual urges, desires, and fears.”
Full credit must go to Bellot to choosing a cast who clearly understood what was being asked of them and performed it with absolute believability. In depicting the real rather than ideal normally featured in cinema, this was central to making Sexual Dependency work, and I can’t think of a single actor present who didn’t deliver. Equally important to this was the subtitles for the Bolivian sections. For my copy at least, they were absolutely spot-on, with excellent use of equivalent English slang and colloquialisms to really ensure that cultural difference didn’t distract from the underlying message. I was also quite impressed by the overall thematic progression and the way in which the way it was edited together managed to match the escalating drama unfolding on screen. There is so much happening on so many different levels both in the stories themselves and the post-production later that the overall result is a rich and layered experience.
The most obvious example of this is the way the film itself has been shot. Bellot experiments with the widescreen format to a degree not often seen before, by having two moving images at once. For the most part, this simultaneous imagery is of the same subject, with one camera filming from a different angle. However, one video is often a few seconds out of sync with the other, providing a sort of ‘echoing’ effect, which is most effectively used in a monologue segment later on. At other times, the two images may be entirely different, with one intended as a thematic contrast to the other, and by the time of the drama’s chaotic climax-as-descent, the visual confusion rises to a crescendo. The overall success of this technique is varied, in some places proving quite effective, while at other times being quite disconcerting and overcomplicated and in some places, not especially necessary. It does certainly provide a visual cue to the overall theme of perceptions shifting depending upon not only how one perceives the world, but what role one plays in a social group and how it changes according to circumstance.
Another criticism I would make has to do with the murky breaking of the fourth wall that occurs toward the end of the film. Metatextuality is an art in its own right and often hard to pull off without being seemingly over-clever or gratuitous. Suffice to say, Sexual Dependency is a title both of and within the film. It doesn’t dampen the overall aim of the film, but it did make me feel a little cheated and emotionally ‘exploited’, although perhaps I simply didn’t see what other viewers may regard as glaringly obvious.
The bleak nature and stark reality of the subject matter unapologetically makes for a rather uncomfortable and disturbing film at times. This of course is the point, though 2 hours in the company of base human desire is certainly not an easy ride. It should cause the viewer to look at themselves and how they may fit into the social hierarchy. It bypasses our rational excuses for ourselves and holds the truth up to the mirror where we can’t escape. While certain aspects of its presentation and narrative manipulation didn’t always work for me, Sexual Dependency is a powerful, thought-provoking work of cinema and a sobering commentary on this most fundamental part of the human animal.
Civil war threatens to tear them apart, but they’ll do whatever it takes to stay together. However, if there’s one thing the Bosnians and the Serbs hate more than each other, it’s homosexuals. The compelling black comedy Go West when World On Film returns.
Hello again. In the sultry, summer humid hideousness that is the first week of August (as opposed to the rest of it?), I managed to catch a film from 2009 I’m sure many have never heard of – Triangle, a thriller drawing inspiration from the Bermuda polygon of the same name, although only in a very distant sense. A group of friends go sailing one morning, only to find themselves caught up in a freak storm. Barely surviving their way through the high seas and deluge, the capsized crew suddenly finds an ocean liner in their path. But relief turns to bewilderment when the seemingly empty vessel proves more dangerous than any high seas-thunderstorm. And why does one of the survivors recognise the ship despite never having set foot on its decks? For answers, they must return to the end of the beginning. Triangle, starring former Australian soap star Melissa George, is one of those films that will appeal more to fans of mainstream film than genre aficionados. It explores a number of interesting concepts that many a horror or sci-fi have entertained before it, but despite its shortcomings, Triangle is intriguing and compelling enough for the viewer to want to see their way through to the end.
“Despite its shortcomings, Triangle is intriguing and compelling enough for the viewer to want to see their way through to the end.”
At any rate, last week, I posted the trailer to Amor Idiota, this week’s film up for review. If you missed the trailer, you’ll find it at the bottom of the previous post. The original intention was to descend upon the principality of Andorra, the small country between Eastern Spain and France. IMDB, the ever-helpful companion providing inspiration for every film I select on my global journey, assured me that Amor Idiota was a Spanish-Andorran co-production. However, the film is shot and set in Spain, so whatever connection it has with Andorra remains a mystery – financial, I presume. On the other hand, the Spanish province of Catalonia shares both the same cultural background and indeed language as its neighbour, so much so, that with the growing Catalonian cries for independence, I can’t help wondering if political maps of the not-too-distant future might see very different Western European borders. But enough of that. Let’s move on to the film itself.
(2004) Directed by Ventura Pons
“My life’s been one long, fruitful journey towards idiocy. As a teenager, I realised I was an idiot. Later, I discovered I wasn’t the only one. Now that I’m pushing 35, I see that not only is everyone an idiot, but that we’ll never stop being so.”
Pere-Lluc is a man unsatisfied by ordinary life. In his mid-thirties and drifting through an existence devoid of meaning, he passes his days a slave to his instincts, aware of the consequences reckless abandon brings, but entirely unmotivated by reason or common sense. A chance encounter with the striking and married director of an advertising firm one evening suddenly gives his life purpose, as he pursues her with a desperate licentiousness – aware of the consequences, but a slave to animal instinct. Inevitable misunderstandings ensue, but Pere-Lluc cannot fight his instincts – he must have the object of his desire, even if it means suffering pain and humiliation to get it.
With Amor Idiota, I find myself challenged to pin down the point writer Lluís-Anton Baulenas and director Ventura Pons were trying to make: ‘stalking – you’d pretty much have to’, perhaps? There are certainly strong indicators that the more well-trodden message of love, wandering, and sunsets will lift us through the chaotic waters of emptiness and self-loathing is the principal message. Unfortunately, the characters designed to illustrate this ideal are painted far too shallow to make any of their actions believable, let alone convince the viewer of the ending that results almost in spite of their actions. Their maladjusted behavior and fatalistic philosophies, which form much of the film’s dialogue, are ultimately squandered as a result. It’s interesting in turn how hard the script attempts to apologise for its lead character’s impulses, with Pere-Lluc being highly self-aware of his ‘idiocy’, as though the idea that someone unfulfilled by ordinary life is horribly wrong – clearly they must be social refuse.
“With Amor Idiota, I find myself challenged to pin down the point writer Lluís-Anton Baulenas and director Ventura Pons were trying to make: ‘stalking – you’d pretty much have to’, perhaps?”
‘Idiocy’ here is almost a misused euphemism – acting upon impulse alone suggests a lack of intelligence, yet in human terms this does not make the principal characters stupid, merely self-centred, driven to depression and frustration by the ticking clock and their inability to subscribe to society’s expectations of where they should now be in their thirties. I can easily sympathise with anyone who finds themselves in this position, yet because the dramatis personae in Amor Idiota are drawn in such unsympathetic and antisocial ways, this entire avenue of middle-aged social commentary is bulldozed to rubble within the first few minutes, the remaining debris atomised by the stunning cowardice or perhaps cornball mismatch (I can’t decide which) of the ending.
Yet the whole misadventure did not leave me bored, perhaps because its silliness kept me guessing. Somehow, I felt compelled to find out where Pons was going with all his maltreated philosophy, and would Pere-Lluc have evolved as a person now that stalking had given his life meaning? I wasn’t best pleased with the result. The film’s unpleasant characters and grotesque discourse compelled me despite myself, curious to see how it would all come to a head, but the finale made me feel an idiot for watching.
“The film’s unpleasant characters and grotesque discourse compelled me despite myself, curious to see how it would all come to a head, but the finale made me feel an idiot for watching.”
The unsurprising standouts of the cast itself are Santi Millan, whose portrayal of the bored, intellectual sleaze Pere-Lluc is right on the money, assuming that this was the intent. I probably saw a bit more of his genitals than I would have liked – that they are symbolic of Pere-Lluc’s surrender to his animal instincts is more desirably clear through the several thousand lines of dialogue stating this point. Cayetana Guillén Cuervo provides an interesting contrast, with the character of Sandra slowly revealing the many layers of her troubled personality to the point where she fits right in with the rest of the gang of misfits. With Pere-Lluc baring all that he is from the beginning, this peeling of the onion provides a welcome and necessary contrast given the ultimate similarity of the leads -seemingly doomed to self-destruction from the very outset.
While I’m not a devotee of the romance genre, I can’t help feeling that it’s so over-mined that the sub-oeuvre of ‘misfits in love’ itself is bound to have been explored to better gain elsewhere. Whether Ventura Pons will have been discovered to have been deeply misunderstood is something for future ages to ponder. For now though, Amor Idiota stands as a mish-mash of valid discourse executed badly, causing at least this reviewer to wonder if he’s either missed the point or been punished for thinking too deeply. Then again, the lead characters manage to achieve both without really coming to a satisfactory conclusion. That in the end, is how this Barcelona farce left me.
However, it isn’t the end of World On Film’s Catalan connection. Sometime later, I managed to find a short film actually shot and set this time in Andorra itself and that will be the subject of next week’s post when we discover the Biblically-inspired – and unfortunately trailer-less – sci-fi drama, Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain.