Moolaadé stands as a fitting tribute to the career of the first great African director. Sembène was approaching 80 when he set out on this final production and after forty years of struggle to make films – and see them distributed in Africa – it is satisfying to report that Moolaadé includes many of the themes of the earlier work and that it is beautifully made. It will also have pleased Sembène that so many African countries contributed to the production (based in an ‘historic’ rural community in Burkina Faso that Sembène said represented ‘green Africa’).
In one sense, Moolaadé offers another ‘timeless’ African story and bears some comparison with Sembène’s masterpiece Ceddo (1977). As in the earlier film, the village is a microcosm of West African society and the central character is a woman who has the fate of the village pushed upon her. In both cases she takes action which brings her into conflict with the men of the village – both the village elders and the religious authorities. Ceddo is more clearly constructed to explore historical issues, but Sembène argued that they are still relevant ‘now’. In Moolaadé the central issues are more clearly contemporary, but the presentation suggests the ‘timeless’.
The microcosm idea is furthered by having actors (and non-actors) drawn from Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, all speaking forms of Bambara – a language spoken in all three countries. This sense of African communities that ignore boundaries drawn up by colonial and post-colonial administrations goes back to Sembène’s first great novel, God’s Little Bits of Wood (1960), about a railway strike along the line from Bamako to Dakar. It also refers to the ‘Pan-Africanism’ of the 1950s and 1960s, which informed the work of many of the early African filmmakers including Sembène, whose novels had also been influenced in this way. Sembène himself was certainly more concerned to see his films dubbed into other African languages than to succeed as an art film director in Europe and America.
The language issue also has an impact on how scenes unfold in Moolaadé. Sembène explains that in the villages formal modes of address require the repetition of names and greetings during exchanges. He tried to rehearse local actors and non-professionals in more ‘film-friendly’ styles of conversation without losing the sense of spontaneity. However, much of it remains and audiences may find that it slows down the film (but possibly makes it easier to follow the exchanges via the subtitles).
The central narrative strand of Moolaadé concerns the practice of ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM) or ‘cutting’ (FGC) – the concept of female ‘circumcision’ being no longer acceptable for what is a seriously dangerous as well as morally reprehensible practice. (See Wikipedia: <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_genital_mutilation>) Burkina Faso is one of the countries which still has a high incidence of one or more forms of FGM/C. The practice is found across much of Sub-Saharan Africa and also from Egypt down through East Africa to Tanzania. It is essentially a cultural practice which predates both Islam and Christianity, although it has been ‘accepted’ by both Islamic and Christian communities in Africa. One of the arguments made on the Wikipedia entry is that British attempts to outlaw the practice during their colonial administration in Kenya had the opposite effect in that identification of prohibition as associated with the coloniser increased the use of FMG/C amongst communities wanting independence.
Sembène was a political filmmaker. He wanted his films to be seen by popular audiences and he wanted the audiences to learn from the films and take action. It is therefore quite possible that more entertainment orientated audiences will find his films, especially Moolaadé, to be either overly didactic or idealistic in the optimism of their resolutions. This has certainly been said of Moolaadé. What is important for Sembène is that strong characters emerge to challenge tradition and to build an alliance for change. Often these characters are women, certainly in Ceddo and Moolaadé and in the novel God’s Little Bits of Wood.
The resistance to ‘purification’ comes from Collie who has endured the pain of ‘cutting’ herself and who wishes to protect her daughter. She is determined to protect the four young girls who flee from the purification ceremony and sets up a moolaadé. This traditional form of sanctuary is represented by a powerful social ritual and can only be broken by Collie herself announcing that it is over – the woman whose public utterances are usually deferential has the ultimate power.
Collie receives support from her husband’s first wife, her ‘elder’, even if she is suspicious of her motives. The solidarity of the wives is evidence of tradition. The support of Mercenaire, one of the two characters with knowledge of the ‘outside world’ is important and so is the (limited) support of the second outsider Ibrahima. ‘Outside’ is also symbolised in terms of modernity – television and radio. These alien cultural agencies are seen to be so progressive that their use must be proscribed for the women (yet the men can use them to listen to broadcasts of the Koran). The complex ways in which Sembène appears to endorse both traditional and modern ideas in his attempt to foster change is what gives the film its strength – alongside the vibrant photography and outstanding performances.
The two outsiders are important in several ways. Sembène argued that Moolaadé was his ‘most African’ film – not only in its production but also in its list of characters. There are no European characters in the film, so these two African characters become the carriers of European ideas (and discussions about wealth and globalisation). Mercenaire is a version of the familiar Sembène character of the soldier who fought for France and is not honoured in his own country (e.g. the wagon driver of Borom Sarret). Ibrahima is another recurring character combining the experience of the soldiers in Camp de Thiaroye and the young woman in Black Girl, who experience rather different effects of travelling to France. A similar character is also at the centre of Guelwaar.
The press pack for the US release of the film includes an interview with Sembène (by Samba Gadjigo) in which he gives the context of the film’s production and his overall idea:
I can tell you that, based on its content, the film is the second in a trilogy that, for me, embodies the Heroism in daily life. One finds that nowadays war is rampant in Africa, especially South of the Sahara. There’s also our life; life continues, after all, with our daily actions that are forgotten by the masses. The people don’t retain them. They want to convince us that we ‘vegetate’. But yet, this underground struggle, this struggle of the people, similar to the struggles of all other peoples, that’s what I call Heroism in daily life. These are the heroes to whom no country, no nation gives any medals . . . They never get a statue built. That, for me, is the symbolism of this trilogy. I have already made two, Faat-Kine, this one now Moolaadé, and I am preparing for the third.
Gadjigo: From the time you wrote your first novel, The Black Docker (1956), in which the first chapter was called ‘The Mother’, you have a given a very particular emphasis to women, to the Heroism of the African woman. Why does this heroism recur, as a leitmotif, throughout your work?
Sembène: I think that Africa is maternal. The African male is very maternal; he loves his mother; he swears on his mother. When someone insults his father the man can take it; but once his mother’s honour has been hurt, the man feels he’s not worthy of life if he doesn’t defend his mother. According to our traditions, a man has no intrinsic value, he receives his value from his mother. This concept goes back to before Islam: the good wife, the good mother, the submissive mother who knows how to look after her husband and family. The mother embodies our society . . . I continue to think that African society is very maternal. Maybe we have inherited from our pre-Islamic matriarchy. That said, to me, every man loves a woman. We love them. Besides, more than 50% of the African population are women. More than half of the 800,000,000 that we are. This is a force that we must be able to mobilise for our own development. There’s no one that works as hard as the rural woman.
(The title of the proposed film that would complete the trilogy and which dealt with government officials was meant to be ‘The Brotherhood of Rats’ – Sembène remained politically committed to the end.)
The Artificial Eye DVD carries an interview with Sembène, a ‘making of’ documentary and a campaign piece about FGC by ‘Forward’ (www.forwarduk.org.uk).