African cinema's founding father Ousmane Sembene (Ceddo, Xala) offers a rousing polemic against the still-common practice of female circumcision. In a small village, four girls facing ritual "purification" flee to the home of Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), who has managed to shield her own daughter from mutilation. Because Collé invokes the time-honored custom of moolaadé (sanctuary) to protect the fugitives, a stand-off ensues, pitting her against village traditionalists and endangering the prospective marriage of her daughter to the tribal throne's heir-apparent. Winner of the Grand Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. (Fully subtitled)
Director: Ousmane Sembene
Cast: Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maimouna Hélène Diarra, Salimata Traoré, Dominique Zeïda, Mah Compaoré, Aminata Dao
MPAA Rating: NR
Run Time: 2hrs
Release Year: 2004
Country Of Origin: Senegal/France
Playing at independent theatres
By CHRIS VOGNAR / The Dallas Morning News
Modernity comes at a high price in Moolaadé, the latest film from 82-year-old Senegalese film giant Ousmane Sembene. But not as high as the price of stasis and submission.
Moolaadé is a powerhouse drama of high-stakes community activism, set in a place and culture foreign to most Western audiences. The nominal subject, female circumcision, is a downer in any language, but the film builds to a powerful crescendo as it depicts a woman with the courage to go against an often-lethal tradition.
Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) is a proud woman in her Senegalese village, and an object of some derision. Years ago, she refused to have her daughter circumcised; this makes her hut a natural destination for four little girls who have fled their circumcision ceremony (or "purification"). Collé calls for a moolaadé, or protection, which can only be lifted with the utterance of the right word. Collé refuses to utter it, thus setting up a brilliantly observed standoff with the village elders, both male and female.
Mr. Sembene, the undisputed leader of the African film world, has a knack for taking cultural specificities and making them familiar, if not universal. Moolaadé unfolds in the confines of a single rural village, rendered with the kind of detail and human interaction that make it feel like your neighborhood. Here is a place you have likely never visited and certainly never lived in. But the emotions and issues are immediately accessible and compelling. The constant bustle, heated contentions and colorful cast of characters, including a roadside entrepreneur and a wealthy young man recently returned from France, call to mind Do the Right Thing and its vivid ensemble and fablelike structure.
Collé is a modern heroine; she speaks for Mr. Sembene's human rights concerns, but to her, the crisis at hand is immediate and vital. The men of the village insist that a "bilakaro," or a woman who has not been circumcised, will never be married. Collé has allies, including her husband's first wife, but her stance makes her something of an outcast in her community. Female circumcision is justified by its proponents through selective reading of the Koran. In defying tradition, Collé enrages the elders, especially her husband's family villagers, who see any affront to their ways as a sin worthy of harsh punishment. Tensions come to boil, until the finale comes with a swell of emotion and consequence.
Moolaadé is a film of ringing moral authority that never feels like a lecture. Mr. Sembene is so committed to his characters and ideals that the drama of Moolaadé has a natural flow that never wavers. It's the work of a wise man who also happens to be a fine artist.
In Bambara and French with English subtitles.
Published in The Dallas Morning News: 01.14.05