“Set in Burkina Faso, an inspiring story about a group of women who stand up for their rights against the traditions of their village”
Director: Ousmane Sembene
Cast: Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maimouna Helene Diarra, Salimata Traore
Synopsis: When a woman shelters a group of girls from suffering female genital mutilation, she starts a conflict that tears her village apart.
Moolaade, the late Ousmane Sembene’s final film, is a contemporary West African drama (although some might argue its subject matter — female circumcision — is global) whose leisurely pace belies the level of intensity within its story of Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), a childhood victim of the ‘purification’ process of genital mutilation, to whom four young girls seeking refuge from the ritual come for protection. Colle is known as an opponent of the practice because she prevented her daughter (Salimata Traore) from undergoing it seven years before. Colle provokes the protective spell of Moolade, and stretches a rope across the entrance to her home beyond which no-one may pass uninvited.
It has to be said that Sembene’s tale is extremely slow — especially in the first thirty minutes. This was my first experience of Sembene — and, in fact, of African film — and I was close to giving up a few times. But, as Moolaade moves forward at its own sedate pace, it begins to draw you in and, unlike most films today, you are completely unable to predict just how the story will end. While Sembene’s primary aim is the condemnation of what most people see as a barbaric ritual, he also upends the conventional practice of depicting progress as a bad thing, inexorably eroding traditions that have been in place for generations and leaving us all the poorer for it. Here, Sembene points out that tradition can be damaging and discriminatory while progress can bring with it sensitivity and enlightenment, even as it also spreads the scourge of materialism, shown here in the guise of ‘Mercenary’ (Dominque Zeida) a seller of bread and batteries and gaily coloured kettles who shamelessly pursues the village’s women even as he fleeces them, but who has standards that the village’s menfolk lack completely. The village chief’s son, returning from a stay in France, also represents the moral conscience, torn by a sense of duty to a tradition he knows is wrong.
Sembene takes time to tell his story but, in doing so, he gives himself the opportunity to get deep beneath the skin of its principal characters and to explore the everyday life and customs of a modern-day African village. For the patient outsider it becomes fascinating to witness. Sembene’s camera almost seems to be in love with its subjects, whether they’re good, bad or misguided, lingering long after most directors would have moved on, to watch a young girl slip on her shoes before leaving the chief’s hut, or to follow the slow-moving procession of menfolk as they leave the village on a nocturnal mission of no good.
Catch Moolade if you can and, if you’re unfamiliar with African cinema, stick with it and your patience will be rewarded.