A woman’s day


When a handful of young girls shows up at her doorstep seeking sanctuary, a Burkina Faso villager of modest social standing (Fatoumata Coulibaly) becomes a crusader against female genital mutilation. According to tradition, unless the girls get “purified”—always forcibly, with simple carving knives and without anesthesia—they’re not properly marriageable. It is this woman to whom they turn because she didn’t allow her own daughter to endure the brutal procedure, and because she seems entirely strong-willed enough to stand victorious against the stubborn village elders who “want to lock up our minds.”

Yes, this is a polemic of female empowerment, but its lack of pretense or preachiness is disarming—or even, to Hollywood-accustomed eyes, downright disorientating. That’s because filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, the so-called father of post-colonial African cinema, presents his story as a simple folk tale parable, not the earnest sort of Oscar-bait message movie so common on this side of the Atlantic. In accordance with its own indigenous rhythms, the tale of Moolaadé moves slowly. It requires patience. What it offers is a heavy subject with a light touch. Sembene, who died last year, will be remembered for making fierce moral clarity feel like easygoing, discursive (if impassioned) conversation.

And for all its subversion, the movie has a healthy respect for healthy traditions. (It’s the unhealthy ones, enforced through corrupt authority, that earn no pity.) Moolaadé in the Wolof language means “protection,” itself a loosely formalized tradition which the brave heroine’s custom-bound opponents must, however begrudgingly, honor.

There’s such matter-of-fact nuance in Moolaadé, such characters and colors and true-life details, that many Western critics have fallen all over themselves to commend it. That has a whiff of the soft bigotry of low expectations, but doesn’t mean it’s not a major picture. No, Sembene wasn’t a high stylist—his delivery remains deliberately rudimentary, his metaphors blunt but potent. He was, however, a committed humanist, and a strong force in the cinema of Africa or anywhere.