Moolaadé (Senegal/France, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

81-year old Ousmane Sembene has been called "the most important cinematic voice ever to come out of Africa," yet because of the quirks of the distribution system and the American movie-goer's acknowledged distaste for anything unfamiliar, none of the director's previous eleven films have been shown outside of festivals and specialty venues in North America. Moolaadé marks a breakthrough of sorts. Although tiny New Yorker Films lacks the muscle to get the movie into every major U.S. art-house, they are giving Moolaadé some exposure, hoping that it gains legs of its own.

Sembene has described Moolaadé as the second film in a proposed trilogy about heroes in everyday situations. 2000's Faat Kiné was the opening entry; an as-yet unproduced picture will round things out. Moolaadé, the cinematic middle child, uses the subject matter of female circumcision as a jumping-off point to examine how the liberation of women is crucial to the advancement and development of any society in today's world. Although the film is not based on a specific incident, it draws from anecdotal stories that have circulated throughout Africa in recent years, as even the most distant and isolated villages are forced to confront modernization and the shrinking world. This powerful motion picture is likely to leave some viewers stunned when the end credits begin to roll.

The village where all of the action takes place is a rural settlement in West Africa. The exact location is never given, although we know it is a few days' journey from "the city." Male dominance in the village is unquestioned. The men make the rules, and their wives follow them. Many of the men have multiple wives, and, according to custom, daughters are circumcised (or "purified"). Any woman who does not undergo this procedure is considered unclean and has no chance of winning a husband. Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) is one of the village's most outspoken women. She is against female genital mutilation, and refused to allow her daughter to be subjected to it. When a group of six young girls balk at having the procedure performed, four of them flee to Collé for sanctuary. She takes them in and declares a moolaadé, a safe zone that will bring a terrible curse upon anyone who breaks it. Thus begins a standoff that escalates into a bloody showdown between tradition and modernization, men and women, and progress and stagnation.

As Moolaadé illustrates, progress never comes without casualites. By standing up to tradition and flouting the commands of her husband, Collé courts a stiff penalty. The more hardened her resolve, however, the more the other women begin to realize that it may be possible to change things. The men react by digging in and taking away the womens' radios (thinking that depriving them of news of the "outside" world will cause them to be more submissive), but once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be replaced.

Moolaadé is a fascinating cultural study. Although it at first appears to be about the ugliness associated with female genital mutilation (which is at best painful and disfiguring, and at worst can be fatal), it's really about a host of wider issues. Sembene generates a surprising amount of suspense during the course of the story, because we're never sure how things are going to turn out. The villain in the film is cultural stagnation; the men who oppose Collé act more out of a desire to protect the status quo than out of malice. When Collé is mercilessly flogged, she is a victim of her stand for progress as much as she is of the man wielding the whip.

Fatoumata Coulibaly's peformance is striking. She plays her character with a mixture of determination and compassion. Coulibaly makes it apparent that, although Collé does not set out to be a crusader, she accepts the role once it is thrust upon her. Sembene draws strong performances from the rest of his cast, including the children, who, despite their young ages, never appear to be acting. Combined with solid production values, this results in a film that looks as good as any big budget production, but has a sense of verisimilitude that Hollywood could never match. I first saw Moolaadé at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival. Of the more than two-dozen movies I experienced there, Moolaadé represented the best Toronto had to offer, with images and an impact that are difficult to forget.

Moolaadé (Senegal/France, 2004)

Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2004
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2004-10-15
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Jula and French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1