Images from Moolaadé

The multi-colored rope demarcates the sanctuary Collé grants the girls with her moolaadé.

Salba presents her godchild as an emblem of the women’s resolve to halt female genital cutting.

The male village elders prepare to publically hear the village women advocate against FGC.

The village’s confiscated radios are centrally framed in the rally sequence.

Ibrahim uses new bank notes ...

... to pay both Amsatou's and his father’s debts to Mercenaire.

Mercenaire’s thriving market is a public meeting spot for the community.

Collé asks the young girls why they fled the “purification” ceremony. This exchange allows Sembène to use closeups of the girls addressing the camera to dispel some of the myths about the practice.

To fight the spread of information and to counter Collé’s anti-FGC advocacy, the men of the village confiscate the communty’s radios. Sembène provocatively frames the pile of radios with the village mosque in the background.

As the pile of radios grows it creates a third structure laden with cultural importance. Sembène uses the radios to iconographically introduce UN Human Rights doctrine, including the right to access media and information.

The men of the village burn the radios during the anti-FGC rally.

Mercenaire arrives with the children ...

... and unloads his market alone. In contrast, the entire community greets Ibrahim, who ....

.... arrives with gifts for the village. His arrival parallels and updates Mercenaire’s arrival seen at the beginning of the film.

With his first-world money, Ibrahim is able to update the village’s communications with his gift of a television, seen here in the back of the truck.

Ibrahim argues with his uncle and father that radio and television are the way of the world.

After the rally, Ibrahim and Amsatou represent a modernized future for the village.


Women’s rights and
the markets that support them

In Moolaadé Sembène further contextualizes the politics of female genital cutting by depicting aspects of neo-colonial and local markets as the political means by which human rights enter into village life. He recognizes the complexity and inextricability of the relation between rights discourses and economic factors. In Moolaadé, the local market is the site at which Sembène stages discussions and actions that highlight the complex position held by liberal economies in the developing world. Similar to Faat Kine, the film presents a view of women’s rights as inherently tied to the market economies that fuel global trade. This happens via the character of Mercenaire. He is the conduit of material and information from the city, manufactured clothes and plastic buckets, as well as radios and the batteries that power them. As such, Mercenaire has the role of peddler as introducer of modernity to rural people. This is an old theme that Sembène uses to highlight the give and take these markets provide in this village in Burkina Faso, which acts as an allegorical staging of the opening of Africa to Western-defined human rights and the market conditions cast as their preconditions.

Visually, the importance of markets and capital is emphasized in the long tracking shot Sembène uses to begin Moolaadé. In it Mercenaire, a former UN peacekeeping soldier stationed  in the Middle East and now current proprietor of the village’s mobile market place, bicycles into town as the children of the village follow him, pushing his cart as he pulls it with his bicycle. He arrives to set up his shop. He is a near-pied-piper for the village children as the film begins. It is primarily around the character of Mercenaire that the film’s discourse on economics revolves; he provides the goods the village men and women purchase with a mix of cash and credit.

In this capacity he is the figure of the contemporary secular African when viewed against the Muslim male elders of the village. Mercenaire dresses in shorts and t-shirts to secularly and economically differentiate him from the village men’s traditional flowing wide sleeved grand boubou. Sembène matches his arrival in the film with shots of the village’s domestic life — children playing and women cleaning and attending to the community without the presence of any of the village men. Disproportionate to that activity seen in the image, the sound of babies cooing fills the soundtrack. The cries of the girls seeking sanctuary interrupt the diagetic establishment of domestic life. At this point the film shifts from establishing its domestic and market spaces to transforming its domestic sphere into a political sanctuary.           

It is also in woman’s a teasing conversation with Mercenaire at his market stall that viewers are made aware that Amsatou is the fiancée of the village king Doucourai’s wealthy Parisian-employed son, Ibrahim. Her teasing of Mercenaire as a mercenary or “killer of women and children who also does coup d'etats,” which Amsatou claims she learned from the radio, characterizes how Mercenaire’s military past is partially understood within the village. In a similar conversation between Amsatou and Mercenaire later in the film, we learn that his true past is that of United Nations’ peacekeeper and midlevel army officer sacrificed for the profit of his superiors after he acted as a whistleblower.

In fact, Mercenaire, the former junior military man and small-time business owner — someone clearly influenced by practices of global capital — is killed after he interferes with Collé’s public beating by her husband. Read allegorically, the UN figure oversteps a local boundary by interceding in a husband’s authority over his wife. Mercenaire overwrites a traditional form of power and for this he is sacrificed. The beating, however, is one of the factors that move nearly all of the village women to accept Collé’s resistance to purification, effectively opening the village to universal definitions of human rights. This opening is signaled by Ibrahim’s decision to marry Amsatou and accept the bilakora status of his new bride. The acceptance by the future King of the village — born into one culture but able to profit within another, in this case the former colonizer’s culture — suggests that the inevitability of economic viability in West Africa rests with an embrace of certain Western cultural values. This is not a stringent assertion made by the film. It is an acknowledgement that the internal struggles of women against practices of FGC in West Africa depend on a space of market exchange.

Indeed, when the girls reach Collé and are granted sanctuary, she asks where they got the idea that she would or could protect them. One girl answers quite starkly that they “heard about Amsatou, who is not cut, and her fiancé is in France and will bring a lot of money.” Much like a portion of Moolaadé’s funding history, the West-African residents of the film’s setting rely on money from France and an institution marked by the United Nations to facilitate an equalization of political and gender hierarchies. With both the king and Amsatou cast as consumers, it is Ibrahim as the first-world representative who foots the bill submitted to him from the former United Nations’ soldier, who acts as the facilitator of the market’s ability to offer a form of equality for both his father the king and his fiancée.

Ibrahim’s return to marry Amsatou and his decision at the end of the film to marry her even though she is seen as “impure” by the village elders, moves Sembène’s critique away from capitalism, per se, to an old guard patriarchy that relies on that system to support a disempowering male-centric form of government. Because it is Mercenaire who will be killed for interfering with Collé’s whipping at her husband’s hand, and it is he whom the village men see as perverting their wives and daughters via the batteries he sells to power their radios, it is in some ways ironic that Mercenaire’s interactions with women at his market stall consistently evoke the label “womanizer” by them. His outrageous flirting with them may make the moniker a deserved one; it is part of his salesman patois. His “perversion,” as the men in the village come to understand it, rests in his position as the economic conduit for information and as a representative of trade and capital marked with a past affiliation with the United Nations.

As in Faat Kine, at the end of his career Sembène’s Marxist-Leninist critique of capitalism has shifted to a critique not of moneyed interests but of the stasis these interests perpetuate when adopted and used by the immediate post-colonial generation of men like Xala’s El Hajid who became local and national leaders. Like Kine’s children Djep and Aby in Faat Kine, Ibrahim and Amsatou represent a future where the modernization fostered by global capitalism — including the creation of a middle class — translate into middle class values of gender equality.

Women’s rights and
the media that support them

Perhaps more so than any of Sembène’s previous films, Moolaadé’s didactic narrative translates universal human rights standards into local, community-driven reforms. Moolaadé played in film festivals across the African continent, including the Sixth Annual Dakar Film Festival in December 2004[26]; the 26th Durban International Film Festival in South Africa in June 2005; the 2005 FESPACO festival, where it won a special health prize; and the 2006 Zimbabwean International Film Festival, where Sembène won the Best Director award two years after the film’s initial festival premier.[27] [open endnotes in new window] Even with subsidies from Africa Cinemas, a 25-theatre group of cinemas subsidized by Europa Cinemas via the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Commission to increase theatrical African-film exhibition,[28] the film’s sole African theatrical run occurred in South Africa in the late-summer of 2005.[29]

Françoise Pfaff argues that Sembène’s films are not solely meant as entertainment; rather,

“His films are primarily intended for African audiences for whom they serve as a tool for progress through self-examination.”[30]

Moolaadé epitomizes the didactic impulse of Sembène’s filmmaking. In an interview Sembène explains that the film has become a “reference tool” for educating communities in a “fight to eradicate” FGC.[31] As such, according to Sembène,

“[the film] belongs to Africa now. And it must be used by women who struggle… to eradicate circumcision” (“Interview,” Making).

In fact, Sembène’s description of the film as a tool is exactly how it is currently used. Since its release at least four different NGOs, including both Tostan and a UK-based African diaspora NGO, Foundation For Women's Health Research & Development (FORWARD), have used the film as an anti-FGC activist’s tool. FORWARD launched the film’s May 2005, UK premiere, sponsored screenings throughout the UK, and in 2008 released an anti-FGC activists guide that works alongside the film to incite conversation and debate for the men and women in diasporic communities that practice FGC.[33]

In addition to the work FORWARD does in diasporic communities in the UK, it also secured funding in 2005 to pursue an advocacy project in Ethiopia, Sudan and Tanzania entitled “Advancing the Human Rights of African Girls” that uses Moolaadé to “work on various forms of gender based violence including FGM, child marriage, domestic violence, marital rape among others using the film as an entry point” (Trustees 10). While I have focused on the way the film treats FGC, it also touches on these other issues via the public whipping Collé’s husband unleashes on her and the fact that Ibrahim’s father and uncle wish him to marry an eleven year-old cousin who has been cut rather than the “impure” Amsatou. This prompts Mercenaire to repeatedly accuse the three men of being “pedophiles.”

In January 2006, FORWARD partnered with the Inter African Committee (IAC) and Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) to sponsor the launch of the film in Khartoum, Sudan, which included “screenings held for Sudanese women’s rights organizations… to prepare a platform for the film, gauging public acceptance and assessing the extent to which organizations felt the film was appropriate” (Trustees 34). SIHA also screened the film and held discussions in a “number of locations” on the Horn of Africa, including at its 2006 annual meeting in Hargeisa, Somaliland.[34] IAC continued using the film in Sudan by incorporating it into a two-day training forum for Imams in Alsalama.[35] This workshop dovetails with the Committee’s three-year (2009-2012) plan to use media — “Internet, the radio, television, newspapers, magazines, Folk dances, Poetry, and age-group dramas” (sic) to raise anti-FGM awareness (21). The hope is that “continual media publicity will further lead to populations receiving positive reinforcement that will enable them to stick to the decision to end these harmful practices” (21).

Moolaadé’s use by these international and national rights organizations speaks to the particular power media has to spread human rights’ awareness. This is a theme directly depicted in the film and one that the film itself embodies in its own funding history and existence as a media text. As media, Sembène’s production employed local craftsman and was itself a tool of modernization that introduced a communication infrastructure to the village in Burkina Faso in which it was shot in 2002. Without a telephone or electricity Sembène explains,

“[the villagers] didn’t live as they did in the past but they didn’t have the means of communication that we have today” (“Interview,” Making).

Throughout the film Sembène repeatedly highlights the commensurate importance of communication technology with local cultural and religious traditions by framing the village mosque, the anthill that houses the cultural memory of the moolaadé, and the women’s confiscated radios at the center of the village. Iconographically, Sembène uses the anthill as both sovereign tomb and a symbol of the sanctuary its history espouses in relation to the village mosque and the current expression of Islam as a part of that history. Coupled in this iconography is the image of the radios. Their prevalence in the film is an evocation of the necessity of “freedom of expression and access to news media” in the UN Human Rights Declaration.[36] The multiple shots of the radios in the foreground with the anthill/tomb in the mid-ground and the mosque in the background is a constant reminder during the last third of the film of a further exchange, perhaps read as an evolutionary process, into a technical space, of a modernity marked by information and ones ability to access it.

The importance of this process is marked repeatedly during the film. Echoing Mercenaire’s arrival into the village laden with the goods he will sell, Ibrahim’s arrival is staged as an updated version of the first. As opposed to Mercenaire’s bicycle, Ibrahim arrives in a small pickup truck packed with goods, including a visibly new television that he will present to his father later in the film. That gift will set the stage for the son’s departure from his father’s position that the women’s radios in the village must be confiscated. When Ibrahim desires to set up the television,s he is told he cannot because the village media, in this case radios, are being confiscated to help tamp down the rising concerns about FGC. Cast with the women of the village by being denied his access to media, Ibrahim asserts,

“Everywhere radios and television are parts of life. It is the progress of the world.”

Sembène uses the market as both the means of access for resistance and as the site of global suppression for the local economy. The villagers purchase the batteries the local woman use to power their radios at Mercenaire’s market. After her mother grants the girls sanctuary, Amsatou’s first purchase at the market is bread, which is cheaper than rice, and batteries, which power the village radios. These radios — powered by the commerce directly benefitting a former UN peacekeeper and African Union soldier — become the objects on which the male village elders fixate when faced with resistance on the part of the village women. They see the women’s access to media as threatening because it is a path to the global world beyond the village. In response, the village men collect and burn all of the women’s radios to regain control over their actions and thoughts. Walking past the humming pile of radios adjacent to the mosque and termite mound, one woman voices this idea: “Our men want to lock up our minds” (Moolaadé).

The great irony of the film is that the women gain just as much power to resist FGC from local cultural practice — the ability to evoke moolaadé or sanctuary — as they do from the media the men think is their greatest threat. The radios, batteries, and neoliberal marketplace all wrapped within the marker of the universal standards of the United Nations are driven from the village, yet Ibrahim remains, effectively taking Mercenaire’s place as a provider of media with his insistence that not only radio, but television will be present in the village’s life. Sembène forcefully accentuates this development with the film’s final shot: a match cut from the ostrich egg at the top of the mosque to a television antenna.

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