A Post-Colonial Call to Arms

By Jonathan Mitchell

ousmane-sembene.jpgOusmane Sembène

In many ways Moolaadé (2003) acts as a digest of Sembène’s career as a whole and affirms his canonisation as the ‘Father of African Film’. The film was intended as the middle part of a trilogy focusing on the lives of women that he had begun with Faat Kiné (2001). Here the post-colonial African experience is represented as an accretion of competing influences rather than a linear progression from one to the next. We are presented with a complex and nuanced society, where tribal tradition has been re-shaped by the coming of Islam, which in turn has changed via the catalyst of colonial and post-colonial influence. The ensuing conflicts dramatised within the narrative are eternal ones: men subjugate women, organised religion subjugates tribal religion, the established subjugates ‘the other.’

How does Sembène’s revolutionary zeal find expression in Moolaadé itself? It appears that the dramatic tensions within the film are indicative of a number of issues – rather than merely being ‘about’ the scourge of Female Genital Mutiliation (FGM) – and it is these we need to consider.

A significant theme within Moolaadé is the rebellion of one woman – Colle Ardou – against the convention (if not ‘tradition’) of her society and the tensions this sets up within the social groupings of the village (her family, the village elders, the women themselves.) Thus the role of women in a fundamentally patriarchal society is brought centre stage by Sembène. In Moolaadé Colle Ardou’s resistance is derived more from past experience than any sudden epiphany: her own children died after being excised. Her daughter Amsatou is ostracised for being uncut (“no bilakoro can ever marry”) but is to be the touchstone for change, later gaining acceptance by marrying the prodigal son and blowing away the shackles of the past. Amsatou links the village to the outside world, the past to the present: her history gives a context to the Moolaadé and a motivation for her mother’s passionate espousal of it.

moolade-ousmane-sembene.jpgMoolaadé, 2003 

Sembène is too aware to make the film a simplistic call to arms for ‘all women’ but is quick to show that institutions, their agents and intractable attitudes are far more of a problem than simply gender relations within a patriarchal society. At one point Colle Ardo accuses the self-styled ‘purifiers’, the salindana, of being motivated by money rather than religious zeal: “10,000 CSA and imported soap for each child cut!” Hence the motives of the sinister cloaked sisterhood are seen as being far from pure.

The gender politics of the film are strident and vigorous. From the outset, following a ‘God’s eye view’ of the village, the camera focuses on the lives of the women heralding that their travails will be the film’s main theme. They supplicate in front of ‘significant’ male family members and in front of the village elders. Thus we are presented with a highly paternalistic social structure which provides both the backdrop and one of the motivating factors behind the gender conflicts that ensue. This also affects how space is used and perceived in gender-specific terms. The well is shown as a prime meeting place for women – it is part of their social space. When the runaway girl is found to have thrown herself into the well it is shown being filled by the men: this space is masculinised as a punishment for transgression.

The central family unit does not escape Sembène’s incisive gaze. Initially Colle Ardou’s husband is absent and the narrative focuses on his wives’ interaction with the other women in the village and the runaway girls. His return – one of many returns in the film – sees him use his full patriarchal authority to try to subdue Colle Ardou. She bites her finger as they have joyless sex, prefiguring the bloodletting, both actual and figurative, which we will soon witness. Sembène juxtaposes sex and violence – as Colle Ardou’s finger bleeds, the salindana mutilate another girl – laying bare the age-old cycle. The wives are shown as being joyful and spirited, able to engage with life’s vicissitudes. By contrast, their husband is depicted as being weak and easily influenced by his older brother, who tells him to exert his authority – and, by extension, crushing the women’s resistance as a whole – by whipping his wife. The village elders are portrayed as unyielding and dogmatic, keen to use rituals and gatherings as public displays of their phallocentric authority.

moolade-ousmane-sembene-2.jpgMoolaadé, 2003

The notion of embedded social structures and attitudes conflicting with the new, the different and the merely ‘other’ is also deftly handled within the narrative. The film is replete with representations of inside/outside or belonging/not belonging. The first scene opens with the arrival of Mercenaire, an outsider whose rabble-rousing history sets him at odds with the village elders. He is used by the village as a focal point for gossip and his presence provides a catalyst through which barriers of class, language and gender are negated. His intervention in Colle Ardou’s beating leads to his destruction: he has transgressed too far, his usefulness to the village is now outweighed by his nuisance value. It could be said that Sembène is showing his audience that individual defiance is not sufficient: only mass action will make a real difference.

The return from France of Ibrahima, the ‘prodigal son’ of the village leader, initially provides a cause for superficial unity and celebration within the village. This facade rapidly crumbles, once everybody has their money or electrical goods, as Ibrahima comes face-to-face with the forces of intransigence in his desire to marry Amsatou. His reception is disrupted by the news of the runaway girl’s death in the well, an ominous portent of future events.

moolade-ousmane-sembene-3.jpgMoolaadé, 2003 

Ibrahima brings a television as a symbol of modernity and new ways, signalling his intention that the village should no longer be isolated from the outside world. He is ignorant – wilfully or otherwise – of tradition: he knows nothing of the tribal leader’s grave and what it signifies. Thus he is positioned on the periphery of the ruling male society but also on the edge of the female one. He is seen to ignore the Moolaadé by stepping over the string to visit Amsatou – might this be a sign of his relative innocence or a lack of threat to the women and their struggle?

The role of religion and its imposition on pre-existing tribal traditions is a key source of dramatic tension. The mosque is the main physical structure that dominates village life. It appears inherently alien, a giant pineapple-like slab that towers over all other buildings. No women are ever seen to enter it: Islam is seen as being male and a tool of phallocentric authority. Whereas the women use their radios as a source of communal entertainment, the men only use them to listen to Koranic readings: religion is joyless, suffocating and very male. The radios provide an ironic third structure after they are confiscated and set ablaze, a sizzling tower of babel between the ant hill and the mosque.

moolade-ousmane-sembene-4.jpgMoolaadé, 2003 

With its rousing Brechtian confrontation and calling to account for a finale, the narrative threads are brought together in a pleasing, if fairly simplistic, way. This signals, to me, that Sembène is suspicious of being a ‘festival’ director, pandering to the tastes of the Western intelligentsia whilst alienating a local African audience. In an interview, Sembène expressed the desire that the film be subtitled into at least eight African languages so it could find a large audience throughout areas where FGM is most prevalent.

Moolaadé’s final image is the ancient ostrich egg on top of the mosque juxtaposed with the television and its promise of superficial modernity and an end to isolation. Sembène gave vision to the universal freedom and brotherhood mirrored by communist ideology, working to educate and liberate the community of mostly illiterate and "apolitical" African workers shipwrecked at the margins of French society. His films could almost be seen as giving vision to Gramsci’s assertion that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Jonathan Mitchell is a film writer and curator working in London.