Female genital mutilation, often euphemistically dismissed as “female circumcision,” is living proof of the world’s continued adherence to barbarism, despite the premature claims of democracy’s march. As practiced in Africa, it is so horrific and sadistic that not even the most devout cultural relativist could defend it. Its larger goal, of course, is to subdue women beneath the boot heel of a primitive patriarchy, but it also stems from the belief that women, as inferior creatures, must not be allowed to experience sexual pleasure. In fact, it is preferable that intercourse (and, as a byproduct, urination) be skull-splittingly painful; an act so unpleasant that with each thrust, females are reminded of their dehumanized state. Moolaadé, a stunning new film from director Ousmane Sembene, captures that sense of gender oppression, but it does not wallow in it. This is not a didactic slog, but rather a beautiful tale of empowerment, without the dull sentimentality usually implied by the word. I say beautiful because, like so much of Africa, it is beset with contradictions. The pain and sorrow of life on that continent are tempered by the magnificent colors and sounds of the region; where smiles, music, and joy manage to exist despite poverty and degradation unimaginable in much of the world.
But I do not romanticize the African people; neither in reality nor in this film are they “simple” souls acting as reinforcements of our Western biases. They are complex human beings (as they should be) using their culture to deal with life, but always mindful of their predicament. For every ritual there is action; an exercise of the will that seeks change and eventual revolution. And yet, despite the opposition to “purification,” there are also many women (often village elders) who support the practice. It is to the film’s credit that these women are not one-dimensional monsters, but rather true believers who quite reasonably think that what they do contributes to a lasting stability in the community. They may, from our vantage point, be mere tools of the male ruling class, but they are, from their perspective, reinforcing long-held (and vital) rites of passage. It takes a woman like Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly) to declare Moolaade (“protection”) in direct opposition to a way of life assumed to be right and true. She, then, is the true outsider.
Colle, like so many of the characters in this film, is conflicted in her own way, even as she remains defiant in the face of tremendous pressure. She takes in several young girls, utters the word of protection, and draws a rope across the threshold of her property. This symbolic act lets the rest of the community know that these girls will not be cut. The power of the word is evident, as only Colle’s retraction will allow the girls to be removed. It is an interesting culture indeed where the respect for tradition is so strong and instinctive that her defiance is treated with the same degree of importance as that which sparked the defiance to begin with. Needless to say, she is beaten for her rebellion, all in the attempt to force her to weaken, but she holds strong — she has come too far to turn back now. Again, these scenes could have played with the usual Hollywood mawkishness, but the film is sufficiently subdued that it refuses to grandstand, even in a moment where such things could be forgiven. And because we have traveled deeply with Colle, her final act of heroism is more than a standard plot resolution.
The other character worth noting is Mercenaire (Dominique Zeida), an entrepreneur of sorts who sells his wares for what are surely inflated prices. As a man inhabiting the center of the action, he knows the score, and is more than a key player in the later drama; he is both strong and vain, a womanizer and profiteer who would just as soon sell his own mother for a few fresh bills (he loves it best when the money is crisp and newly printed). Like so many characters of his type, he demonstrates a nobility that appeared impossible at first, but does so realistically, not because the script requires it. And because he is both saint and sinner, he is a great source of laughter, proving again that this is not merely a lecture from the Third World. Above all, this is a story with characters of depth and insight, although its message is firm, resolute, and essential.
The most striking element of this film, outside of the obvious, is that these women possess such a passion for information and knowledge. Their radios are their connection to an outside world largely forbidden by the male elite, and it is through this source that they are able to see that despite official pronouncements, the Koran does not mandate mutilation. And when the threat becomes too strong, the radios are collected, placed in a large pile, and set aflame. This powerful image, with the smoke and fire curling around the village with the intensity of a whip crack, acts as a larger symbol for the real global struggle ignored by the Bush administration and other phony proponents of “freedom.” While the right-wing foundations and political interests argue for liberation, they are in fact advocating an economic individualism; a method that keeps the mind enslaved to doctrine, while the train of commerce is allowed to continue unimpeded. True freedom, of course, has nothing at all to do with the right to choose Doritos over Pringles; it is the unrestricted intellectual journey the human mind can and must make in order to fully understand the whole of existence. Conservatives look at that bonfire and see the need to set up an electronics stand in the next village; progressives see the stifling of dissent and typical strong-armed tactics of the powerful against the powerless. It’s essential to understand the difference lest we think the world should ever be remade in the Right’s image.
The closing image of the film, the replacement of a traditional egg with a TV antennae, might be viewed with suspicion in the West (TV, after all, is often described as the root of all evil), but in this context, stands as a moment of triumph. That changing of the guard — the move from the past to the future — is not guaranteed, of course, but offers hope to millions of women caught in the trap of an unparalleled misogyny. Images from our country, for example, might often rely on the sub-mental and the banal, but they are counter-images; direct challenges to thousands of years of what amounts to running in place. Even the ridiculous has a capacity to inspire, as it was the allure of blue jeans and fast food that helped bring the Soviet Empire to its knees (certainly more so than Reagan’s sci-fi pipe dreams). Who knows, maybe the young daughter of a villager will catch some sitcom from America and, rather than belittle the obvious jokes and silly plot points, will instead notice that other little girl in the background. You know, the one who speaks her mind, holds her head high, and understands her vagina inside and out. And what’s more, is not afraid to use it.