Thursday, 29 July 2010

A Magical Protection.

Ousmane Sembene was really the first African director to achieve any international prominence. Starting his creative career as a writer, a novelist, he moved into filmmaking with his first feature hitting in 1966. His films won acclaim and attention around the world, seeing him serve prominently on festival juries and picking up prizes right through until his last film in 2004 before his death in 2007.

Moolaadé follows his themes of films with a political and social urgency. One not afraid to speak out, in his final offering to the cinematic universe he tackles the controversial subject of female circumcision, something that seems to be on and off getting much attention in the western world over the last decade. In Sembene's film (which picked up a couple of prizes at Cannes and the NSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film) we look at how a village possibly on the verge of a cultural shift away from the practice moves through the vilification and exclusion of those opposed, and where the support comes from.

Like so many Sembene films, the protagonist, the strong one, is a woman. Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) is a mother who a number of years before the events in the film refused to have her daughter circumcised, knowing the risk that she may die or that childbirth might become a tortuous procedure for her (more tortuous than I can only imagine it is already...) Six girls are set to be circumcised, but they escape. Two drown themselves in a well rather than submit themselves to what could happen, while the other four run to Collé to seek refuge. She provides this for them in the form of Moolaadé, or magical protection, a rope strung across her property that no one dares to cross. This unleashes a string of problems within the village, with people variously for or against her, some of them women, some of them men. The elders feel that she is bringing shame, and they encourage her husband, who is initially against involvement, to beat her publicly to try and force her to revoke the protection, but when she is close to collapse, having held her ground, a merchant who has previously been friendly with her steps in to stop the spectacle. The repercussions for him are deadly, but the greater good this achieves for the village is obvious.

It is a very different experience watching a film like this shot by a native of the area, starring natives of the area. Unlike, say, Hotel Rwanda, where ostensibly foreigners pitch in with their views on what is going on, Sembene looks at this through the eyes of someone in tune with the traditions and the village politics involved. The correctness or barbarity of the practice is not clearly defined - yes, it is more than likely horrifically wrong, but there is a tradition here, no matter where that tradition came from or how long it has been practiced. There is a level of entrenchment here that has to be recognised and dealt with before the ceremony can be entirely excised. Sembene moves through narrative with his own view quite plainly out on show (with the sympathetic characters being those against the circumcision, and the people in charge of the ceremony portrayed in menacing anonymity) but without ever closing off the alternate angles and viewpoints dictating the arguments for.

And his method of making the film is much more... well, real. The film feels a lot closer to truth, probably due to the much simpler production methods presumably dictated by the resources available to a film of this type and his own understanding of the society he is portraying. Their day to day activities aren't romanticised or even emphasised, simply shown as a backdrop to the dominant narrative, necessities within the film.

Moolaadé emerges from all of this more as an interesting insight, however, than a fascinating motion picture. The entire way along it feels a little emotionally distant, it doesn't quite puncture through to the feeling that one might have expected from something with such a passionate discourse surrounding it. It somehow felt light. It didn't quite make it all the way through to the dramatic potential of the material. I'm sure this in many ways had to do with the relative inexperience of much of the cast and the constrictions of local, truthful filmmaking with the region, but I feel like it could have cut through a little closer to the bone.

That being said, it is a bold statement, definitely valuable even as a launching point for further discussion of the subject both cinematically and generally. And as far as an example of how films can be made in Africa by Africans, there are far worse possibilities. The film definitely warrants closer inspection of Sembene's back catalogue. 3.5 stars.

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