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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Moolaadé" (2004)

(SCREENED AT THE 2004 CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL) We live in a constant state of progression, technological advances and medical breakthroughs that we sometimes forget about nations outside our own that have yet to catch up to where we were even twenty years ago. “Moolaadé,” a film from Africa, tells the story of a state in Africa that still practices a ritual based on a religion that predates most other religions. The protagonists not only want to put an end to this horrific ordeal, but they also want to be able to keep their radios. What does one have to do with the other? The two issues crisscross out of a power struggle between the domineering men of the village and the doting women. It’s a movie about the inevitable invasion of technology and female empowerment over a village where people must share a single water pump to take a shower.

The movie mainly focuses on the issue of female circumcision, or “purification,” a ritual a young girl must go through in order to be purified. If she does not abide by this ritual, she will be branded a “Bilakoro” and not be able to marry (in an arranged marriage, no less). Many girls bleed to death from this ritual. Why go through with it? Because many village elders believe the ritual to be Islamic law, an ideal currently under attack in Africa where female circumcision remains in practice in 38 States. Too many daughters have died as a result and the rapidly changing climate of the times dictates that it must be stopped.

So say the women of the village after four little girls come crying to Collé (Fatoumata Couibaly), a woman known to have refused to have her own daughter, Amasatou (Salimata Traoré), cut. Collé takes the four girls in and conducts a protective spell over them—a Moolaadé—that will bring harm to anyone who tries to harm them. This protest, of course, brings much outrage and scorn from the men of the village who will only marry “pure” women and declare blasphemy on any child who refuses to go through with being cut. In order to break the spell, Collé must utter a single word. In the meantime, the girls remain off limits to the sinister pack of red-cloaked cutters who approach the village regularly to claim them.

Meanwhile, one of the locals, a man of wealth, returns from Paris to marry Amasatou, only to learn that she had never been cut. While he encourages the village elders to grow with the times and has no problem telling his father that “my marriage is my business,” he has a hard time picking a side. A key conversation occurs between him and the charming, womanizing merchant, Mercenaire (Dominique Zeïda), where the two talk about the hypocrisies that exist amongst the men in the village. Mercenaire famously womanizes, but declares that at least he’s not a pedophile, unlike some people he knows.

But what about those radios? Radios play a huge part in the context of the story. Many women in the village have one. They listen to music stations, but more importantly, they listen to women talk show hosts who have a voice that speaks for them. The men of the village don’t take to the radios in the same way and at one point use the radios against the women out of a counter-protest. The radios become a symbol for the women’s indomitable spirit and refusal to succumb to the tradition.

The director, Ousmane Sembene, often referred to as the father of African cinema, lets the story breathe, but without wasting a single minute. The film moves at a leisurely pace, but never becomes dry or manipulative. An American director tackling this issue would probably have cranked up the Hans Zimmer score to its most unbearable heights, but Sembene gives his characters the loudest voice. While the movie contains a timely, important message sharply directed toward those who still practice the ritual of cutting (and who aren’t likely to see the movie in the first place), it never feels as though he’s preaching, but rather saying what needs to be said in the mosth direct way he can.

The performances from the mostly local, non-professional cast are natural, heartbreaking and powerful, particularly Couibaly as Collé, who has such a commanding presence, she practically represents the face of female empowerment. She gives an alternately fierce and warm performance of a woman who carries the weight of the village on her shoulders as though it were her true calling that has finally arrived. The male side of the story does not get short-changed, nor are they all considered the bad guys. Mercenaire becomes one of the most endearing characters, something of an unlikely hero and almost an all-knowing all-seeing voice of reason.

“Moolaadé” takes on issues of great importance and confronts them head-on, but it would be a mistake to not mention the surprising amount of humor and pay-offs that come into play here. The movie can be uncomfortable to watch, but it also has many moments of warmth and comedy. The characters have indelible personalities and we can see a little bit of ourselves in them. The universal themes of inevitable change and female empowerment will resonate with any viewer who gives this movie a chance.

I saw the movie at the 2004 Chicago International Film Festival with a sold-out crowd who hardly said a word during the entire movie, yet we all laughed, got choked up and even cheered together as though these characters belonged to us. While “Moolaadé” focuses on a specific sector of the world with vast differences from our own, Sembene and his cast transcend that and make it a movie for the masses. It’s a movie about evolving without losing our humanity. It’s about humanity as a voice of reason in the seemingly impenetrable practice of dangerous, ancient religious customs. It is about the need for these customs to be re-examined and perished for the sake of the future. Like the continent itself, “Moolaadé” will leave you in shock, a little breathless and grateful to have basked in its suffering as well as its joy.

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