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Final cut
Ousmane Sembene’s political masterpiece

The West African village where Moolaadé is set — director Ousmane Sembene (for four decades the pre-eminent figure in African cinema) shot the film in an actual village in Burkina Faso — is a space both real and symbolic. In its design, the village mosque imitates a nearby anthill, which, embodying a tradition older than Islam’s advent, recalls the punishment suffered by a king who violated the tribe’s sacred law of protection, the Moolaadé. Around the mosque and the anthill, Sembene unfurls a space of constant transformation and movement. The film opens with the arrival of the itinerant seller Mercenaire, who’s lugging the cart from which he’ll unpack a whole general store. Later, to welcome the chief’s son, Ibrahima, on his return from Paris, the villagers lay a succession of bright-colored carpets before his black-leather shoes.

The film’s heroine, Collé (the superb Fatoumata Coulibaly), performs the key transformation. By stretching a colored rope across the gateway to her family’s small compound, she invokes Moolaadé on behalf of four young village girls who have fled the ritual of "purification," or genital mutilation. Collé’s defiance of the village elders, tribal tradition, and her husband’s command in protecting the girls precipitates a conflict that draws in all the people of the village.

The depiction of ordinary heroism in Moolaadé is moving and gratifying in numerous unexpected ways. The story resembles a kind of plot that’s often used in popular narrative art in the West: a person takes a stand against injustice in her community; at first, she seems alone and is exposed to threats and violence; then, one by one, inspired by her integrity and courage, members of the community join her. What’s remarkable about Moolaadé is the clarity with which Sembene makes each character’s choice the understandable result of the person’s past history and present commitments. In its vivid characterizations and its vigorous and fluid storytelling, Moolaadé is a model of lucid, cogent, and gripping political filmmaking.

Sembene creates scenes of a beauty and poetry that would be staggering were they not so casual and unobtrusive. In one extraordinary scene, Collé explains to her teenage daughter, Amsatou, why she refused to have her purified; Amsatou, distressed over the village chief’s refusal to let his son marry her because she is "bilakoro" (unmutilated), responds only by tearing a photo of her ex-betrothed standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. The imagery flows from the narrative with such elegance that the conjunction of ideas — as in a dream that feels real — is startling mainly on recollection. Shot after shot overflows with invention and audacity: in one incredible scene, Ibrahima, in his gray European suit, wanders around the village staring at its mosque, its anthill, and the growing pile of radios that the village elders (in a bid against female empowerment and the spread of ideas) have confiscated from the women.

Restrained and precise camera movements; imaginative use of music; a narrative progression both ritualized and plausible; a thoughtful use of cutaways, in scenes of crisis, to integrate and implicate onlookers — all these aspects of Moolaadé reveal Sembene’s mastery. If the film seems straightforward, that’s because its complex design is, at every moment, the simplest possible pattern for the vision of time, space, history, and action that Sembene seeks to express. His graceful style combines concreteness and multivalence: a plain shot of a chicken crossing Collé’s protective rope is enough to remind us that the sacred space of Moolaadé is also a space of practical daily life.

Sembene never resorts to a facile treatment of his subject. He never has, for example, his two Westernized characters, Mercenaire and Ibrahima, condemn female genital mutilation. Instead of opposing an advanced, enlightened, civilized culture and a backward, ignorant, barbaric one, Sembene shows a conflict that can be resolved only within the context of local traditions and politics. And in focusing on the resistance of women, he creates a forceful and beautiful feminist narrative whose relevance goes beyond its African context.

Issue Date: December 10 - 16, 2004
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