Political Film Society - Newsletter #212 - December 1, 2004

December 1 , 2004


Moolaadé, directed by Ousmane Sembène, is a truly remarkable film from Sénégal that focuses on the injustice of female genital circumcision (FGC). When the film begins, the annual FGC ritual is underway in a remote Burkina Faso village that has a beautiful mosque and a sculpture of an anthill in the center of town. In the past, Collé Gallo Ardo Sy (played by Fatoumata Coulibaly) openly refused to allow her daughter Amasatou (played by Salimata Traoré) to be circumcised.  Now, four very young village girls (one no more than five years old) seek refuge with Collé because they do not want to be circumcised. Collé, in turn, will not surrender them to the salindana (FGC midwives). She erects a moolaadé (sanctuary) by placing some yarn across the entrance to the compound in which she lives with her husband and his other two wives. Her defiance creates the tension that plays out episodically through the elaborate etiquette that maintains social stability. Indeed, Moolaadé, subtitled from the French, is a fascinating study of social relations in a remote African village where residents are devout Muslims. The anthropological insights are many, including the important facts that men have authority over women, older brothers are dominant over younger brothers, the first wife has authority over the second wife, and so on. Nevertheless, traditional authority is being eroded through three influences. One is that the women have purchased battery-operated radios that provide music and news; as noted later in the film, one item of news is that an Imam has said that FGC is not required by Islam. A second foreign influence is that an itinerant merchant, The Mercenary (played by Dominique Zeïda) sells the radios and batteries as well as bread and other objects; once a UN peacekeeper, he returned home after he was dismissed from a UN mission for being a whistleblower regarding corruption. The son of the village chief, who returns home from Paris to claim his bride, supplies the third outside influence; he is betrothed to Amasatou. However, the men and midwives are already riled up over the refusal of the girls to submit to FGC before he arrives. One of the village elders insists on confiscating all radios, and the village chief has decided that his son shall not marry Amasatou. When the rich son enters the village, Amasatou is banned from offering the traditional greeting, a dish of water to drink, and he learns that he cannot turn on the radio or television set that he has brought with him.

Meanwhile, increasing pressure is brought to bear on Collé. Why does Collé refuse to allow Amasatou to undergo FGC or to release the four girls whom she is harboring? Collé has been embittered by the fact that FGC killed her first two daughters, and her own FGC was responsible for an ugly casearian wound from delivery of Amasatou. Three additional incidents galvanize the women of the village to support Collé. At one point, a girl who had undergone FGC is unable to urinate because the resewing of her genitalia leaves insufficient room. The second event is the discovery that two other girls refusing FGC have committed suicide by jumping into the village well. The third occurs when a mother of one of the four collects her daughter, marches her against her will to the midwives, carries her home afterward, and watches as she dies in her arms. When a friend offers her recent baby to be reared by the grieving mother, the latter declares that there will be no more FGC in the village henceforth. Collé then approaches the village men, who are assembled together, to announce the collective decision of the village women. Collé husband's older brother, meanwhile, has provided him with a whip to force Collé to submit. The most dramatic scene, therefore, is the public whipping in front of the entire village. What happens after that may perhaps serve as a paradigm for how FGC will eventually be abolished, though a public whipping may perhaps not be a necessary condition for the abolition of the practice. As an extraordinary story that raises consciousness about an injustice afflicting millions of disfranchised women in more than thirty African countries, the Political Film Society has nominated Moolaadé for best film of 2004 in promoting consciousness on the need for greater democracy (to include women in the political process) as well as for improved human rights.  MH

The Birth of the Holocaust in Motion Pictures, which was presented at the Film & History conference in Ft. Worth during mid-November, is the latest contribution to the Working Paper Series of the Political Film Society. The author, an Israeli scholar, discovers that early black-and-white images of the Holocaust were carefully organized and yet are still seen as authentic even though color footage was taken at the time. The essay is available for a donation of $5, as are all the other Working Papers, which are listed on the Society's website.