Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Unkindest Cut

Film: Moolaade
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

When I heard what Moolaade was about, it became the newest List addition that I least wanted to see. This film is about female genital mutilation, which is a subject I find difficult to even contemplate. I try not to shy away from things that are important, and don’t get me wrong—this is important. It just gives me the willies. Sembene’s film is, thankfully, wholly against the practice. Part of Moolaade’s purpose is doubtless to raise awareness of the topic. I’m all for that. It just happens that this topic is horribly icky.

A group of young girls escapes from this ritual exercise and rush back to their village, asking for the protection of Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), a woman who refused to have her daughter undergo the same ritual some years earlier. To enact her protection, she places a colored band of rope across the entrance to her house. This protection, called “Moolaade,” prevents anyone from coming into the house to harm the girls. This all becomes more relevant because Colle’s “unpurified” daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traore) is promised to one of the powerful village elders. This elder flatly refused to have his son marry an impure woman as is demanded by this particular Islamic sect.

There is quite a bit here that reminds me of the first of Sembene’s films that I saw: Ceddo. That film also dealt with the harshness of Islam in West Africa, albeit at a much earlier time than the modern world of Moolaade. Sembene’s sympathies in that film were clearly against the oppression of the Islamic regime in question. The same can be said of Moolaade, where he is unquestionably on the side of Colle and the young girls who do not wish to be mutilated in the name of religion.

It’s worth stating that the film is not specifically anti-Islamic or anti-religion in any way. Sembene was a Muslim and nothing in this film is against the ideas of the religion—it merely protests the idea of genital mutilation as a barbaric practice. Sembene’s sympathies are entirely with Colle, and he specifically depicts her as an extremely strong and powerful woman. This attitude is also reflected in the character of Ibrahima (Theophile Sowie), the French-educated fiancĂ© of Amasatou.

Ibrahima is told that because his betrothed is not ritually purified, he is not able to marry her and is instead given his young cousin as a bride. Marriage acceptability is different from culture to culture—while we object to cousins marrying, it’s often seen as the most favorable match in many other cultures. The objection here isn’t so much the relationship between the two, but the very young age of the girl. Ibrahima objects, though. As a man of the modern world back in his more primitive village, he decides that his marriage is his own business, and his promise to Amasatou is to be kept.

The heart of Moolaade is repression, and more specifically, the repression of women in the Islamic culture of Burkina Faso as depicted here. Genital mutilation is the most barbaric and terrible of the repression we are exposed to in the film, but it is far from the only way that the women are held back. It is decided that the reason Colle and some of the other women are beginning to challenge the purification tradition is because they listen to the radio, and so all of the women in the village have their radios confiscated. This becomes a bigger bone of contention than the purification ritual by the end; the women begin to understand that their radios are taken from them because the men want to keep them repressed and ignorant. A great deal of Colle’s strength comes from Hadjatou (Maimouna Helene Diarra), the first wife of Colle’s husband, who does everything she can to help Colle stand firm in her decision to prevent her daughter from being physically mutilated.

This culminates in a scene in which Colle’s husband beats her with a whip to get her to end the protection for the four girls. This is what eventually turns the majority of the women against the mutilation. Well, this and the stoicism with which Colle takes the brutal beating and the death of a child from the genital cutting.

The biggest issue with Moolaade is the same issue I had with Ceddo: it’s slow. While there is a lot to take in here and multiple ideas about religion, tradition, and belief here to take in, not a great deal happens for long sequences in the film. This is possibly necessary to fully deal with the impact of what is going on here and the slow, deliberate rebellion of the women. But it can feel like nothing more than people talking for long sections.

Moolaade is worth seeing if only because this is a topic that needs more people knowing about it and opposing it. This is precisely the sort of topic that requires more and more awareness, because only awareness of such barbarism is the best way to combat it.

Why to watch Moolaade: A current, ongoing topic that requires more attention.
Why not to watch: That current, ongoing topic is nauseating.


  1. I felt that with the addition of this and Osama the editors were definitely trying to bring more attention to the plight of women in repressive societies.

    The bit with the radios in this film was somewhat strange to me in that it amused me and that reaction bothered me because it's supposed to be serious. Cut parts of our genitals off so we can't enjoy sex? Okay. Take away our radios? WE WILL NOT STAND FOR THAT.

    And I suggest staying away from the craziness that is the IMDB boards for this film with all the back and forth about male circumcision - unless you want to see just how strongly some can feel on the subject.

    1. As crazy as the radio thing is, I think that very much reflects reality. Cut off parts of our genitalia because this is what tradition and religion have dictated to us over centuries? Okay. Take away our radios? You've removed one of our pleasures. It's hard to know about he pleasures of sex when you've never had them. It's easy to understand the pleasures of the radio when it's taken away.

      My favorite quote from the movie Pitch Black is a character saying something to the effect of, "You can live without life's necessities as long as you have some of its pleasures."

    2. "It's hard to know about he pleasures of sex when you've never had them. It's easy to understand the pleasures of the radio when it's taken away."

      Very good point.

    3. Even a blind squirrel finds the occasional nut. Don't expect it from me too often.

  2. Moolaade is quite an introduction to West African cinema! (It's free on YouTube, a nice print with English sub-titles.)

    I found it gripping and informative and frequently very entertaining despite the grim subject matter.

    Aside from the amazing performance by the actress that played Colle, here's a couple of things that I noted.

    In the scene with the village council where the men are talking, defending cutting off part of a young girl's sexual parts (referred to euphemistically as "purification"), I was quite impressed by the mansplaining! That is some Blue-Ribbon Mansplaining right there! GOP politicians and commentators who weigh in on abortion, sexual harassment and rape culture couldn't do any better (or worse, depending on your perspective).

    And then, with their deeply-held belief in ritual genital mutilation being challenged by one woman in the village, they decide to confiscate the radios!

    Because that's what you do when somebody points out that your deeply stupid idea is deeply stupid: Blame the media!

    I'm recommending this very highly, but I doubt anyone I know will see it. It's an even harder sell than Wadjda, but at least I got my mom and my step-dad to watch that; they loved it!

    1. Well, I don't want to disparage the people you may know, but the truth is that most people don't want to be challenged, and a movie like this is all about challenge.

      It's easier to just think what you think and believe yourself to be right about everything than it is to risk being wrong.