When movies underwhelm us, the reason often lies, at least in part, with our expectations. That obviously was the case in my recent first encounter with Moolaadé; by Ousmane Sembene, the 81-year-old Senegalese director who has been called “the father of African cinema.” Sembene’s latest made its national debut at last fall’s New York Film Festival, where it was greeted with near-unanimous raves, a reaction that perhaps reflected an appreciation not only of the filmmaker’s venerable career but also of the sensitivity and difficulty of the subject his film treats: female circumcision. Though I don’t question the sincerity of the critical applause the film received, I know critics understand the importance of their views in the art-house launch of a movie like Moolaadé. How, after all, do you sell an African film on genital mutilation in the U.S.? Quite clearly: only with four-star reviews. Anything less than the most fervent praise tends to be damning at the box office, and with a film as nobly intended and commercially tricky as this one, supporters don’t want to be seen as less than maximally supportive. Does that mean that sincerely complimentary three-star analyses sometimes end up as four-star raves? I think so.
My own three-star view of Moolaadé thus risks being taken as less than laudatory, but it’s not intended as such. Rather than meaning to discourage attendance–the film’s artistic accomplishments and human fascinations surely deserve to be encountered by any serious cinephile–I merely wish to register certain reservations along with the appreciation that others have voiced, reservations that perhaps are best indicated by something that surprised me in my own reaction to Moolaadé: Rather than keeping me plugged into the vibrancy of west-central Africa, where it is set, the film kept bringing to mind a certain town on the French Riviera.
I’m not speaking of scenery, but of what might be called cinematic ambiance. And here a brief word on terminology and cultural provenance is perhaps in order. When we speak of African cinema in the way the term is normally used, we are generally speaking of sub-Saharan Africa; and the one region of sub-Saharan Africa with any significant form of cinematic culture is francophone Africa. The connection between language and cinema is hardly accidental. In effect, most of the sub-Saharan cinema the world sees is less accurately described as African than as Franco-African, in senses both economic and cultural.
The French, of course, are as adroit at exporting their culture as Americans are at hawking Big Macs and Humvees, and their efforts have met with particular success in those parts of Africa formerly ruled by France and Belgium. Where once the Foreign Legion roamed, a thousand alliances françaises now bloom. In the cinematic realm, French influence on African creativity extends from financing and production through critical reception to international marketing. Thus Moolaadé, though co-produced by film organizations from several African countries (including Burkina Faso, the capital of African cinema), was made by a French crew, underwritten by various agencies of the French government, and met the world at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won a top prize in the Un Certain Regard section.
Far be it from me to use terms like “cultural imperialism” or “neo-colonialism,” and, in fact, the basic situation discussed here is hardly unique to Africa. In the area of art films, the French retain a worldwide primacy as taste-makers that, like it or not, is largely earned; filmmakers from locales as diverse as Outer Mongolia and Iran receive funding, inspiration and technical help from Paris, and understandably tailor their wares to the fashions of Cannes. But coming from Africa, where the legacy of colonialism is profound and pervasive, a film like Moolaadé can’t help but raise questions of where “Franco-” ends and “African” begins.
I say this not because I doubt the film’s ingenuousness, but because its story to me seemed shaped–and ultimately, blunted–by a desire to appeal to foreign viewers. Though it commendably takes on a particularly thorny issue in African culture, it ends up not so much exploring the various sides of that issue as espousing a stance that (not coincidentally, I think) is essentially the “correct” one for Westerners. And no, I’m not saying the film should have given us a “pro and con” of female circumcision, but only that it misses a complexity that might have made it feel more like lived reality and less like a rhetorical construct.
Sembene’s tale takes place in a verdant village dominated by a large, colorful mosque, a village in which both polygamy and female circumcision are practiced. Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), however, is having none of the latter practice, which the locals call “purification.” She refused to have her own daughter circumcised, and when four young girls (ages roughly 6 to 10), show up asking for her protection, she grants them moolaadé, a traditional form of sanctuary that has a magical dimension.
Her actions provoke a crisis in the village not only because they pit two important customs against each other–a rich dramatic premise in itself–but also because they split the inhabitants into opposing camps. The division isn’t entirely along gender lines. While some women ultimately sympathize with the rebellious Collé, others support circumcision because its traditional status means that uncircumcised daughters have a hard time finding husbands. And though men are ultimately the ones who enforce the custom, threatening violence against women who disobey, some–especially younger men and those who’ve been outside the village–feel that the practice oppresses them as well.
Along with the conflicts alluded to thus far, it’s interesting how Sembene contrasts the culture within the village and that of the world beyond, since he invariably privileges the latter. When the son of the chief returns home–wearing a spiffy Parisian suit no less–he is presented as an enlightened emissary from la France, bearing a form of wisdom that bids to displace that of his ancestors. And when the women rally their side with voices they hear on their radios, the men retaliate by burning the radios in a bonfire in front of the mosque, an act that’s made to seem as horrendous as any Nazi book-burning.
Is it really so simple? I’m not sure any struggle between old and new, traditional and modern, indigenous and foreign ever is. The place of religion in Sembene’s drama also has a dubious rhetorical slant. Female circumcision predates both Christianity and Islam, and in Africa is practiced by Christians, animists and Ethiopian Jews as well as Muslims. In the film we are told that Islam does not command the practice (such statements are among the objectionable things the women hear on their radios), but many claim that it does. This, rather than tradition, is the standard rationale offered, and the film seems content to have the assumed linkage between Islam and genital mutilation linger throughout. If this tack is not dishonest, it is at least convenient vis-á-vis French viewers at a time when arguments over Islamic women’s headscarves in France have produced a polemical equation of Muslim customs with female oppression among supposedly enlightened citizens.
All of this may sound like I have particular agendas regarding the Africans, the French, Islam, what have you. But mostly it reflects my preference for polemical dramas that have two equally weighted sides, and that invite us to understand and sympathize with the bad guys as well as the good. Reservations similar to those voiced above once led me to pan Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, among various other supposedly uplifting political movies that reduce the world’s complexities to simple black and white.
I’m speaking there only of Moolaadé‘s moral schema, not its luxuriant visual palette. Whether or not Sembene’s robustly articulated style, with its emphasis on vivid colors and spacious exterior compositions, is formulated to suggest “African” mainly to Europeans, it is impressive and highly enjoyable on its own terms, and it frames an array of engaging performances from a large and spirited corps of actors.
Ultimately, the reservations one feels about a film like Moolaadé have to do with one’s distance from the culture it describes. How do Africans really feel about female circumcision? After watching the film, I am more certain that I know how Sembene thinks Westerners feel (and no doubt, his judgment there is pretty shrewd). Is there a significant African audience for such a film, or is it primarily for export-only? In the movie’s press notes Sembene says, “My audience is Africa, while the West and the rest are only targeted as ‘markets.’” It’s a clear-cut statement, but as in Moolaadé itself, one senses that it disguises a more complex reality.