Moolaadé, Senegalese director Osmane Sembene’s last film, tells the story of Collé and her plight to protect others, in the small village of Burkina Faso, from female genital mutilation (FGM). The starting point comes from four girls who seek refugee with Collé and ask for protection from their impending ‘purification’ (circumcision) ceremony. After losing two daughters during childbirth due to her own aggressive circumcision, Collé becomes an advocate for these children and vocally stands against FGM in the community.
By using FGM as the central issue in Moolaadé, Sembene opens the gate, not only to issues such as perseverance and the power of the community, but also to how gender stereotypes and how their social constructs bear no relevance to the strength of individual character. The men of the village only inherit their power and are often portrayed as ineffectual and ignorant in their actions. However, the women, and more specifically Collé, have the passion and conviction to stand up for what they believe in despite the often violent consequences.
Sembene skilfully portrays village life with warmth through his colourful cinematography and flashes of humour. He casts a light on how religion can be wrongly used as a tool to manipulate the women into submitting to obsolete traditions, such as FGM. The conflict between traditional values and the influence of modern ideas is also evident in the film. While the men desperately cling onto the old values and therefore their power, the modern ideas, represented by presence of the radio and television, point to the modern age and a shift towards forward thinking women.
It would have been an amateur, but tempting, choice to graphically portray the horrors of FGM in Moolaadé but Sembene, in his experience and wisdom, is more subtle than this. His suggestive camera shots and the power of the unsaid leaves more of a lasting impression than any invasive glimpse into the actual procedure would. A good example of this is the elusive children (who the viewers never see) who throw themselves down a well for fear of having to undergo the circumcision. We are invited to contemplate the horrific nature of FGM and how its possibility prompts two children to kill themselves in order to avoid it.
In the same vein, Sembene continues this intelligent subtly with our main character Collé. Although it is not explicit in the film, there is something about our heroine that intrinsically sad and harrowing. Despite the fact that this film is about human perseverance, the underlying suffering of this protagonist cuts deep. Collé is free in her opinions and yet imprisoned by idle tradition. Owing to her circumcision, she has to bite her finger till it bleeds to distract herself from the pain of intercourse. She still bears disfigured scars from the violent emergency caesarean needed to save her only surviving child and she is whipped viciously in front of the other villagers for her continuing protection of the four girls. Sembene’s tribute to the power of the everyday hero shines through in Moolaadé but not without painful sacrifice and Collé’s war wounds are clear for all to see.
Despite its positive and empowering finale, Moolaadé left me with a sense of unease that lingered long after the final credits. Far from this fictional parable, Moolaadé reminds us of the countless women who are still suffering from the psychological and physical effects of FGM and unlike in this film, there are still so many that aren’t listening to the cries of their fellow women.