Two weeks after Moolaadé premiered in competition at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the festival’s un certain regard prize, Sembène was awarded the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Fellini Medal on May 28 in Barcelona. According to the UNESCO website,
Since the film stands firmly against the practice of female circumcision, no matter how firmly based in tradition, the film’s didactic narrative only arguably meets the criteria of respect for cultural diversity outlined by UNESCO.
Writing the Islamic male elders of the village as one-dimensional characters who seem to oppress their wives and daughters solely for the sake of religious tradition and their own sexual desires and egos, Sembène avoids staging a dialogue between the cultural factions advocating for and against genital cutting. Furthermore, after seeking Collé’s protection we hear each of the young girls explain why they resisted the purification ceremony. This allows Sembène to give a voice and autonomy to the affected girls and provides the audience with a counter argument to the “purification” ceremony, parts of which are staged throughout the film (Moolaadé). In contrast, the female elders of the salindana are practically silent in the film — their major dialogue consists of threats to kidnap the protected girls and plots to defeat Collé in her resistance.
Perhaps any emphasis on the rights of the disadvantaged would meet with the same opposition from traditional ways that depend on hierarchies. However, by choosing not to display a dialogue between the two factions, Sembène resists depicting contemporary modes of activism adopted by such anti-FGC organizations as Tostan: these groups invite men and women to learn about the effect of the practice on women’s rights and health in an educational setting that does not immediately demand that villagers abandon FGC (Ben-Ari 5). By filming a polemical engagement with women’s rights rather than an evenhanded consideration of the diverse economic and cultural traditions associated with the practice, Sembène, in fact, continues his longstanding critique of patriarchy, and its corresponding hypocrisy, in post-colonial political and family institutions.
Coming at the end of Sembène’s long career, the Fellini Medal award announcement notes that the Senegalese director, the first Sub-Saharan West African filmmaker to be awarded the medal, was chosen because his
The UNESCO citation honors Sembène for his critiques of West African postcolonial political and social structures as he questions the plausibility of a functional, humane nation within the legacy of colonial rule. Often driving this critique is Sembène’s skepticism of capitalism and his insistence that moneyed interests drive the policies and values of nations governed from a traditionally male-centric viewpoint. In most of his writings and films, Sembène explores the corrupting force of capitalism, especially when it reinforces lines of influence and power that continue from a colonial past to the continued dominance of patriarchal power.
Calling attention to Sembène’s interest in women’s rights, Frederick Case maintains,
Throughout his career, Sembène periodically returns to questions concerning women’s rights as inextricable with the rights of the formerly colonized people. It is the theme with which he began his career in Black Girl (1966).
Perhaps it’s my desire to tie beginnings to endings, but in Moolaadé I find parallels with Black Girl, particularly in the centrality of the female protagonist, Diouana; she’s endowed with a psychological depth demonstrated via voice over and flashback. In Black Girl Diouana’s thoughts are unable to be vocalized both because of the dominant French discourse that defines the parameters of her entry into the Cote D’Azur setting her employers have brought her to and because her position as colonized maid, cook, and nanny overwhelms her ability to assert herself within her employer’s world. Diouana’s thoughts are only provided in voiceover narration and via flashbacks to her life in Dakar. Unlike Collé, who forms a collective cultural and political force and who uses her past experiences as a foundation from which to alter the village’s practice of FGC, Diouana kills herself rather than continue to be alienated and abused in a setting which does not welcome her as anything more than a worker.
Considering the two women, Collé’s ability to advocate for her daughter and for the other daughters of the village in a way unavailable to Diouana provides a tangible representation of the modernization of West African women’s rights from colonial rule to contemporary national and community rule. Although Collé is the second of three wives, the other wives support and join her efforts as the film progresses. Furthermore, while Collé’s husband is bullied to savagely beat her in front of the village to extract the word that will lift the moolaadé, by the end of the film he leaves his place with the male elders to support and join the community’s women in their anti-FGC rally. In Moolaadé the juridical and cultural power Collé is able to claim in her community to effect cultural change and to assert control over herself and the village girls is markedly different from the options available to the female characters that populate Sembène’s earlier films and fiction.
In earlier films Sembene often uses women characters as allegorical representations of the competing cultural and social experiences of the immediate post-colonial nation state. As such, they are drawn as dependent on their husbands and unable to effectively gain autonomy from the values and mores that determine their subservient status. Marcia Landy writes that via allegory Sembène emphasizes “the importance of the link between history, politics, and culture.” Both Landy and Philip Rosen have noted how Sembène often uses allegory to address West African postcolonial experiences. Rosen uses Fredric Jameson’s concept of political allegory to consider how Sembène depicts the relationship between the collective and the individual:
While Collé should also be read as an allegorical representation of the individual communities and African nations that may act to end the practice of FGC, in his earlier films and fiction Sembène uses the relationships between men and women to acknowledge that economic and social viability is impossible for women whose sole source of income and status emanates from their husbands. In his earlier films gender is not only used allegorically; the portrayed inequality between men and women in traditional, polygamous families also allows viewers to confront the detrimental national and local effects of perpetuating conservative, patriarchal forms of governance for both public and private institutions. Sembène’s exploration of how women navigate within Western Africa as it modernizes invites us to consider not capitalism itself as a governing malaise, but the perverse combination of capitalism and traditional patriarchy that perpetuate the subjugation of women in the name of tradition.
This critique may be found in “Her Three Days,” a story set in a location similar to that depicted in Moolaadé: a polygamous West African Islamic community. Sembène uses the story to critique what he sees as the inherent gender inequality of polygamy. Preparing for her three days with her husband, Mustapha, Noumbe repeatedly places herself in debt at the local marketplace in order to purchase meat and goods for a feast she prepares hoping to entice her husband to spend more time with her now that he has taken a fourth and younger wife. As seen by her husband, his other wives, and the community, Noumbe is pitiable; she is unable to care for herself — she eats ash mixed with water to supplement the medicine she can no longer afford for her heart condition — or to entice her husband to care for her and their children. When he does arrive, days late and disdainful of her, she protects herself from allowing him to see her disappointment and humiliation by being shrill and distant. Sembène’s depiction of the cruelty of the marriage and the village’s view of it, reinforces the infectious inhumanity of personal relationships which are conceived of and exist in a system of gender inequality.
The sickly and dependent Noumbe both desires the attention and resources her husband offers, while resenting and rebelling against his dismissive treatment of her, yet she prepares for the mere possibility of his visit by exacerbating her already tenuous economic status. Noumbe’s debt cycle reminds the reader that the economic means needed to access goods are a necessity for postcolonial communities. Access to the meat and goods Noumbe desires to maintain her status in the eyes of the community also maintains the illusion of her status for her husband. Via her debt cycle, intractable poverty and lack of community respect, readers can see Noumbe as an allegorical representation of the postcolonial nation state that is economically and socially tied to the former colonizing power, resulting in stasis and sickness, debt and dysfunction for the immediate postcolonial generation. She is caught in a terrible cycle: her husband’s disdain causes her anguish, but it is his presence, which she desires, that she imagines will extinguish that anguish; in fact, it simply exacerbates it.
The relation between debt and access to postcolonial national institutions is a central theme in Sembène’s work. It is one that takes a more pronounced gendered character in later films like Faat Kine (2000) and Moolaadé, in which female protagonists are able to assert independence and agency in male-centric institutions. However, Sembène does not reserve his critique of the debt cycle that capitalism perpetuates in the developing world to a commentary on gender equality. He uses debt to dramatize how colonial institutions and values perpetuate themselves within contemporary capitalism. His use of markets and capital in his earlier films illustrate how values are culturally inscribed by Western capitalism, often in ways that perpetuate class hierarchies and gender inequality. Since neoliberal market ideas dominate contemporary capitalism, Sembene’s last films offer a perspective that is markedly different from the depiction of postcolonial hypocrisy offered by earlier films.
In Mandabi (1968) he highlights the corruption prescribed by capitalism on postcolonial national institutions to show the intractability of the colonizer/colonized debt cycle. Sada Niang describes the film in this way:
Adapted from Sembène’s novel of the same name, Mandabi’s plot revolves around a money order — a mandabi — sent to Ibrahima, a rural patriarch, from his nephew, Abdou, who works as a Parisian street cleaner. In his attempts to cash the order, Ibrahima is confronted with national and economic bureaucracies hostile to providing him access. As Sembène describes this situation,
As he will in Xala (1974), Sembène creates an urban environment comprised of national and financial structures that are actively hostile to allowing rural citizens access. Access is the purview of the financially elite who demand fees and bribes from Ibrahima, ultimately causing him to owe more than the money order is worth even before he is able to cash it. While he is anonymous within the new nation’s urban modernity, Ibrahima’s rural status as patriarch and recipient of the mandabi preserves his identity. Traditional cultural positions preserve a male-centered worldview as a form of protection from the anonymity post-colonial modernity fosters.
In Moolaadé the themes of debt and capitalism are introduced early in the film with the anticipated arrival of the king’s son, Ibrahim, who carries with him the promise of money earned from his employment in Paris. Through Ibrahim Sembène explores the politics of contemporary global and local economies and its relationship to the recognition of a woman’s right to control her body and to have access to a public forum to demand rights. As he does in Mandabi, Sembène uses financial ties to a colonial past to suggest that economic sustainably depends on international capitalism to support the desire for consumption that modernization brings to the village.
Called to pay his father and fiancée’s debts, Ibrahim lectures Mercenaire on price gouging. To this the shopkeeper replies that the cost of convenience and transportation make his stale bread and overpriced kettles a virtual steal. This interaction, which notably occurs in French, highlights how the village economy depends on the infusion of money from the European Union, in this case, France, to pay for goods purchased on credit. Here the village king’s purchasing power is intertwined with the ability of Ibrahim’s fiancée, Collé’s daughter, to also purchase goods on credit from the village market. The ability to participate in the local economy illustrates how a form of equality may be achieved via economics.
While debt is used differently in Moolaadé than in “Her Three Days” and Mandabi, in all three texts Sembène uses the themes of debt and consumption to problematize the continued relationship between Africa and Europe. In these works credit is nearly the only means by which the economically disenfranchised may gain access to financial and national institutions. In Mandabi this disenfranchisement is extended to Ibrahima’s wives. At the beginning of the film they are shown lamenting the family’s lack of food due to Ibrahim’s unemployment. As soon as they know about the order, which they do before Ibrahim does, they see the means by which they can feed their family and have credit extended from the community’s shopkeeper to buy food. Sembène portrays this initial use of credit sympathetically, but as the film continues the mere existence of the money order creates an infectious desire for money and goods within the family’s community. Ibrahima’s wives purchase goods on credit from a travelling salesmen, promising payment from the money order, which the entire village now knows about, and, later in the film, purchase bras from a peddler who comes to the family home.
In what is otherwise a sympathetic depiction of women in the film, Sembène points to the dependency created by unearned money by casting Ibrahim’s wives as susceptible to the enticements of consumption on credit. The debt cycle is portrayed in Mandabi, as it is in “Her Three Days,” as a means of dependency and disenfranchisement. Astou, Abdou’s mother and Ibrahima’s sister, is seen by the community’s men as unreasonably incensed in her reaction to Ibrahim’s failure to cash the money order and to have borrowed and spent more than its value in his attempts. At the end of the film, referring both to her response to Ibrahim’s failure and Ibrahim’s wives, a male villager laments, “May Allah protect us from women’s domination.” This sentiment is expressed nearly verbatim in “Her Three Days.”
At the end of the story Sembène inserts mention of the nascent organizational structures women are forming around the country when one of Mustapha’s associates comments that the village women — “these hussies” — think they are going to run the country now that they have associations. Similar to the way the male village elders pressure Collé’s husband to assert his authority over Collé’s assertion of her autonomy via the moolaadé she enacts, by drawing attention to women’s emerging political access and the disdain this access elicits, Sembène is able to highlight the entrenched gender inequality of postcolonial political and economic institutions. This inequality carries on in Moolaadé with the numerous remarks made by village elders — both male and female — that an uncut girl, bilkora, will be unable to marry.
Discussing Sembène’s Xala, released the same year “Her Three Days” is first published, Marcia Landy points out,
Read against the modern, tolerant masculinity that Ibrahim represents in Moolaadé, in Xala Sembène address the intersection of colonial rule with a form of masculinity defined via the accumulation of wealth and status. This intersection is made apparent when cabinet minister and Chamber of Commerce member El Hadji Abdou Kada’s is unable to perform sexually on the occasion of his third marriage. He has been cursed with a xala — an impotency curse levied on him by a traditional, rural community from which he expropriated money meant to secure the community’s rice supply for his own wedding ceremony.
The last two feature films Sembène made, the second and third of a trilogy about women in twenty-first century West Africa that began with his 1999 short film L'heroisme au quotidien, continue his exploration of the influence of capitalism in West Africa as a modernizing force. In both Faat Kine and Moolaadé, Sembène shifts from a direct critique of the corrupting influence of capitalism and its ability to retain colonial values that uphold patriarchical social structures to an indirect critique by depicting how women may gain social and economic independence by harnessing the modernizing potential of capitalism embodied in middle-class business ownership and in the proliferation of communication technology. Faat Kine perhaps most dramatically draws on the modernizing power of capitalism when the stability and independence it may offer is provided to an unmarried woman who is able to create a middle class life for herself, two university-bound children, and her mother. Kine’s ownership and management of a local gas station depends on her ability to navigate both small-scale and institutional financial transactions. In one instance, she refuses a customer’s payment in French francs and refuses the woman’s subsequent offer of a bracelet as payment. Because she has created her own middle class life by building herself from an unwed mother abused by her rural, traditional father, Kine is able to navigate everyday financial deceptions. She is the personification of a Western-defined striving member of the middle class, complete with a beautiful home decorated with a large painting of Nelson Mandela, a son who aspires to be the nation’s president, and a daughter who desires to immigrate to Canada for her university education.
As opposed to Ibrahima’s inability to navigate the bureaucracies of both the post office and an urban bank in his quixotic attempts to cash his money order, as an urban, middle class business owner Kine is familiar with the practices of contemporary financial institutions. She refuses the terms of a loan that would require her to use her home as collateral to fund her daughter’s desire to attend university abroad. By claiming the loan terms amount to usury, Kine avoids the debt cycle previous characters in Sembène’s films and fiction so easily fall into; her middle class status allows her to use savings to fund her daughter’s education ensuring her autonomy and the future autonomy of her children. Instead her daughter and son will attend the local, national university, paid for from Kine’s savings. Considering Faat Kine within his depiction of women within the post-colonial capitalism found in West Africa points us to the variations within Sembène’s critique of global capital as an irrational force that allows for modernization via similar values and inhumanity that marked colonial rule.