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'Mooladé' addresses topic of female circumcision

By Rachel Gordon
On February 6, 2012

"Purification" is a misleading word. We normally think of this process as becoming free of undesirable elements, whether it is of a physical or emotional nature. The village people in Moolaadé, however, have their own definition of what it means it to be pure. Late last Thursday night, I dragged myself up the Rabb steps into Golding Auditorium for what I believed to be a dark documentary about the harsh facts of female circumcision. However, as the Anthropology Club introduced Moolaadé, winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, I realized that the movie was not a documentary, but rather a fictional film addressing the controversial subject of female genital mutilation, or "purification."

Moolaadé, or "magical protection," was written, directed and produced by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene and is set in a brightly colored Burkina Faso. In a mosaic of small huts centered around a mosque, the glowing village starkly contrasted with the dark subject matter of the film.

Moolaadé opens with the women of the village walking around with buckets of water atop their heads, wearing traditional African garb and going about the day's work. A vibrant, womanizing, pedophiliac merchant (Dominique Zeïda) sells various items in the heart of the village. Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the hero of the film, is her husband's third wife. Seven years prior, she radically refused to have her daughter circumcised, but now her daughter is trying to get married. She is shunned by the women of the village who hold the ritual to a high standard; a sacred ritual necessary for the maturation of their daughters and ability to wed. Six girls, ages four to nine, who have pending circumcisions, seek refuge with Colle. She casts a spell to protect them in the form of a rope barrier that is not to be crossed—the mooladé. For standing up to her society and her husband's support of the surgery, Colle is subsequently beaten in public. During the beating, a girl dies from the circumcision procedure. The death illuminates the detrimental and tragic effects of the practice, and the village women join Colle in rejecting it.

With a running time of two hours and four minutes, Moolaadé is a long film. At times I found myself having difficulty following the plot because of its length, and as I watched the movie unfold, the already small audience trickled out of the room. That being said, the film does a stellar job of addressing the hot-button practice of female genital circumcision and exposing the injustices of it without being graphic. From a purely visual aspect, the cinematography of the film appears to be very simple, but it is actually quite intricate in its usage, lending it a familiar feeling. Using minimal special effects and a combined fluidity of scenes felt as though the movie could have been in real time.

Female circumcision is a contentious topic, and when it comes in the form as something different than a docudrama, it is almost unfathomable. How else would it be possible to get all of the facts and case studies of these issues without being trite?

Additionally, it is nearly impossible for students not living in a society which supports these procedures to understand the multiple issues Colle faces. It is easy for us to stand back and be appalled at the notion of a community forcibly mutilating young girls, but more should be required of a student than to simple watch these barbaric scenes unfold. A question-and-answer period was supposed to follow the screening, but the film ran too late. An accompanying discussion is critical to films like Moolaadé. Otherwise, it is too easy to let these images slip out of our consciousness.

Moolaadé manages to strike the right chord through Colle's deliberate rejection of her people's tradition and through the depiction of her slowly unraveling relationships as well as her status in the village.

Roger Ebert, who described it as one of the best films of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, said that Moolaadé "makes a powerful statement and at the same time contains humor, charm and astonishing visual beauty."

Most enchanting, besides the humor of the councilmen's debates in their confusion over Colle's spell, is the role of the ritual. Colle's magical protection, symbolized by a colorful rope guarding the young girls, serves as more than a barrier, but it also represents the isolation that separated the girls who have not had the circumcision from the ones who have. The rope demonstrates the potency of the ritual to the people of Burkina Faso and how one custom can tear apart a society so gravely and thrust the village people into upheaval.

Sembane, who is critically acclaimed for taking African cinema to an international level, uses Colle, the everyday hero, as the vehicle to unearth the misfortunes of female genital modification.

While I found it challenging to see most characters beyond one dimension, the multitude of dilemmas Colle faces along with Coulibaly's powerful acting helped me see the many layers of her character. Beyond protecting the girls, Colle faces the rejection of her village, the dismay of her husband, her daughter's questioning of why she avoided the procedure and her exclustion from the external world when radio usage is banned in the village.

Despite the film's critical praise, I did not think that Moolaadé held enough rising tension throughout the movie to keep the plot enticing for the whole two hours.

The extremely brilliant colors of the film, in opposition to the dark theme, reminded me of a beautiful watercolor composition. Moolaadé still evoked enough of an unsettling feeling and encapsulates what it means to be exiled by your society for rejecting such highly regarded and yet devastating practice.


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