Ousmane Sembene was for many, including myself, Africa’s greatest ever film director. His last work, Moolaadé (the title means physical and spiritual protection) is a fine and brave work, set in an Islamic village in Burkina Faso.
On the surface, this is a cheerful, traditional community, clean, colourfully dressed, not prosperous, but getting by. A beautiful 17-year-old girl is awaiting the return from Paris of the headman’s son to whom she is promised in marriage. But her mother, Collé, the independently minded second wife of a weak, wilful husband, has refused to have her subjected to female circumcision. Then five 12-year-old girls come to Collé in flight from the regular ‘purification’ (i.e. mutilation) ceremonies and she gives them her ‘moulaadé’.
This unleashes powerful conflicts in the village. The elders turn on Collé, as do the team of red-robed women called the Salidana, who carry out the often fatal circumcisions. Her daughter can no longer marry her fiancé, who, despite his new Western ways, bows before his father’s demands.
Detecting the source of subversive knowledge, the males seize the women’s battery-operated radios and make a bonfire of them. An itinerant trader, a rebellious outsider, who has a background of insubordination in the army, takes Collé’s side when her husband whips her in public. That night, he’s driven out of town and murdered.
This powerful movie addresses female mutilation as both a cruel practice to be abolished and as a metaphor for the traditional subjugation of women in a society dominated by self-regarding men who stand idly by as their wives do most of the work, the thinking and the child rearing. It ends affirmatively with the women on the point of controlling their destinies.
The film has as its centrepiece a stomach-turning scene of a screaming girl being ritually cut, juxtaposed with an image of Collé’s husband enforcing his conjugal rights. Collé’s stand leads to a kind of martyrdom for her; the village elders order a totalitarian bonfire of radios, which are filling up the women’s heads with modern ideas – but it ends on a note of hope and change.
This is a movie about contemporary sexual politics in which there is something very real at stake. The final contrasted images are of an ancient ostrich egg that has stood atop the mosque for two centuries, and a TV aerial, a hopeful link to a future of information, education and a world elsewhere.