Movies that stand with their rebellious protagonists against oppressive policy tend to finish either in tragedy (e.g., Vera Drake) or triumph (e.g., Erin Brockovich). Master African filmmaker Ousmane Sembene chooses to mix the two in the finale of Moolaadé, a feature about and definitely against female circumcision in Africa. As a result, what looks to be a fated tale twists in unexpected and moving fashion. And what appears to be a standoff between Muslim fundamentalism and capitalist modernism gives way to a more complicated--though still tense--dance of influence.
The 82-year-old writer and director knows some mixed-up steps. Born in Senegal, a French then Free French soldier in World War II, and afterward a Marseilles dock worker, Sembene became a renowned novelist in his 30s and a filmmaker, back in Senegal, in his 40s. Schooled informally by the French New Wave and formally by Moscow's Gorki Studios, the director has focused on stories about black Africans, especially women, and on the forces--tradition, postcolonialism, religion, and globalism--that shape their lives. The small rural village in Moolaadé is linked, through a traveling salesman and the chief's son returned from France, to competing Western ideas about capitalism and education--and also, through tribal governance and radio, to differing traditions of Muslim practice. Sembene's isn't a static view of culture or of cultural oppositions.
Six village girls flee their circumcision ceremony: Two head for the city and four plead for the intervention of Collé Gallo Ardo Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly). The second wife of a farmer, Collé kept her daughter from being cut years before. The no-nonsense Collé stretches a length of colorful rope across the entrance to their compound. This act, a spell called moolaadé, establishes a safe haven for the girls, sacrosanct until Collé says otherwise. Uproar begins as quickly as the news spreads, and soon the women who do the cutting--red-gowned "witches" here--arrive at the door with the girls' mothers, demanding that Collé recant. With her husband away in the fields, Collé is advised and supported by the first wife (Maimouna Hélène Diarra). What's striking to this Western viewer is the age of the youngest girls involved: They look about five or six.
That tension established, Sembene backs away and reaches for another thread: a peddler or mercenaire (Dominique Zeïda) has returned to the village, and Collé's daughter is sent for bread and batteries. One after another customer purchases batteries and what must be at least day-old French bread until the viewer understands that these items are representative of what the West offers: consumerism's fleeting satisfactions and a wider window of reference (the batteries are for radios). It's just a hop and skip before the women's radios are burning, by order of their male governors, against the silhouette of the mosque.
As the women grumble and Collé's husband returns to his own shitstorm of peer pressure, Sembene veers into the colorful ceremony of the chief's son's promenade through the village. (Both in image and sound, Moolaadé is rich with cultural information, even as it feels stagy.) Then the film snaps back stingingly with one, two, three tragedies. In the West, we feminists may argue about whether it's right to impose Western anticircumcision ideas on African tribal cultures. Sembene has no time for that. He's quite frank about showing the cost of such practices on women's bodies and minds. He knows that some real Collé exists, and he's trying to save her life. It's a mark of his respect for that woman and her community--and all the audiences watching his movies in Africa--that even in his activism he doesn't simplify their situation or deny the difficulty of their choices. And it is our privilege to learn again that radio signals beam in more than one direction.