Via a match cut, Sembčne links the cultural importance of the mosque for the community...

... with the modernizing importance offered by access to media.

Molly Melching (left) founder and executive director of Tostan, which means breakthrough in Wolof.  Pictured with Oumy Sanokho and Alice Werbel.

From a community rally sponsored by Tostan. The emphasis on grass roots advocacy and local cultural customs seen in Moolaadé is echoed in Tostan’s anti-FGC work.

As Collé accomplishes in Moolaadé, women-led and organized grass roots activism has led to changes in cultural traditions in West Africa.

My pride is in being able to say that this film, Moolaadé, was born on the continent and from the continent.” – Ousmane Sembène (pictured)


A blueprint for human rights discourse

In addition to the way the film depicts how local activists may work on a grass roots level, diegetically and extra-diegtically it is a blueprint for local activists who not only wish to help educate communities but who wish to fund and run a human rights NGO. From its funding to its narrative, Moolaadé addresses the challenges of recognizing and mediating human rights violations in African nations; as human rights scholar Sally Engle Merry suggests, these challenges lie in the difficulty in translating the UN Human Rights doctrine and the African Banjul Charter into a vernacular implemented at local levels.[37] [open endnotes in new window] In her work she outlines the conundrums facing human rights activists who work to alter local behaviors in the face of these problems. To conclude I am going to work through Merry’s conundrums to draw together the diegetic and extradiegetic means by which Sembène’s film functions as a blueprint and model for anti-FGC activists.

Coupled with the local justice achieved in the film via the moolaadé, the use of local customs and mores addresses Merry’s first and second conundrums:

  • Human rights law is committed to setting universal standards using legal rationality, yet this stance impedes adapting those standards to the particulars of local context.
  • Human rights ideas are more readily adopted if they are packaged in familiar terms, but they are more transformative if they challenge existing assumptions about power and relationships. (5)

Sembène’s translation from universal to local makes the adoption of rights easier. It also allows for a more substantial transformation because Collé’s actions challenge the power and authority of the village elders patriarchical juridical system, overcoming its stringency by accessing the community via a public rally. Collé and the village women invite the elders to join them by making FGC a public issue. Collé’s husband chooses to act first, followed by Ibrahim’s decision during the rally to move away from the elders and to assert his own autonomy. These acts challenge the community’s “existing assumptions about power and relationships” in the way that the future king and, to this point, the weakest member of the village elders assert their authority (Merry 5). This lays the groundwork for future gender equality. Ibrahim seals this transformation by proclaiming that he will choose his own wife and allow the village to have access to media, proclaiming, “the era of little tyrants is over — forever.”

The importance of media to the film’s narrative and Collé’s appeal to the moolaadé are two ways Sembène highlights the importance of rights consciousness via both local cultural traditions and national/international media access. Another narrative tactic is to have the local women eschew generational and ideological divisions at the end of the film to jointly demand that the female and male village elders support halting the practice. Their collective demand to end the cutting is particularly poignant because it is prompted in part by one woman’s grief over her daughter’s death after she removed the girl from Collé’s custody to undertake the purification ceremony. Diatou’s young death coupled with the women’s joint reaction to the public whipping inflicted on Collé by the village elders unifies the women of the community in opposition to FGC in a public ceremony filled with song and dance.[38] Much like the ceremonies Tostan sponsors, the village women perform their right to protect their own children by ending FGC in the village via a public performance filmed as an entry into the pubic sphere of the village’s political and juridical institution.

At the end of the rally Ibrahim, the future king, supports the rights demanded and performed by the village women when he reminds his father and uncles that he will choose his own wife, rejecting their choice of his eleven-year old cousin who was to replace Amsatou. Sembène stages this interaction at the end of the rally as a culmination of the women’s demands: Ibrahim moves away from the village elders and walks toward the community’s women, following Collé’s husband who had previously refused to “tame” his wife to put an end to her demands and to silence her role as individual activist and organizer. This movement to the local overcomes the impediment of universal juridical institutions by adapting to local customs.

At no point in Moolaadé does anyone invoke national, international, or pan-African laws protecting the rights of women. While Mercenaire is identified by the villagers as a former UN peacekeeper and member of the African Union’s peacekeeping force, he only allegorically represents international NGOs or pan-African institutions. The juridical system available to members of the community are only those available locally; namely, the village elders who convene to hear the salindina’s grievances concerning Collé’s moolaadé and who meet to discuss her resistance among themselves. This absence calls attention to non-local institutions lack of power to provide juridical support for women who find themselves denied the rights offered them via international and pan-national treaties or national laws. FGC is, in fact, illegal in Burkina Faso, where the film is set, yet there is no mention of a national juridical infrastructure available to provide Collé and the girls she protects with protection and justice (Ben Ari 5).

This situation is not unusual in African nations like Burkina Faso and Senegal where national law prohibits FGC (Ibid). Although the Banjul Charter provides that “‘the state shall ensure the elimination of every discrimination of women and also ensure the protection of the rights of the woman and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions,” Wolfgang Benedek, professor of international law, contends, “little use has been made of this provision and its potential by African women themselves, as there have hardly been any cases brought to the Commission.”[39] Law scholar Henry Onoria suggests that one reason behind the provision’s sparse use is that the protections granted women are contextualized within the confines of family and traditional values.[40]

By contextualizing women’s rights as part of the family unit, those rights are specialized and separated from the idea of universally granted human rights. Because women’s rights are specialized, they are applicable only when recognized and advocated by “traditional values” upheld by the state to support the “natural unit” of the family (“African Banjul” 2). Cast like this, the right of a woman to control her body, for example, is secondary to the state’s duty as “the custodian of the morals and traditional values recognized by the community” (Ibid). Trapped by such traditional practices as polygamy and FGC, an appeal to women’s rights falls short of an appeal to human rights which are not bound in the Charter by definitions of family or traditional values — values, as in Moolaadé, often controlled by male-centric juridical and political institutions.

Considering this history Moolaadé offers a local alternative to the pan-African juridical approach suggested by the Charter.[41] Instead of the appealing to universal definitions, the film locates a way to empower the village women in their own cultural traditions and values. By using the traditions of the village and accessing the historical memory of its founding by calling forth a moolaadé from the tomb/anthill, Collé invokes the privilege of a local institutional political apparatus by tapping into a cultural history she actively works to supplant. This empowerment allows the women to effect change in the village’s political and juridical institutions. It is here at the most basic level that the film demonstrates its work to translate the universal discourse of human rights into the vernacular by employing local cultural practices and legitimating the cultural change within local advocacy.

Diegetically and extra-digetically, Sembène’s didactic narrative is an illustration of Engle-Merry’s fourth caveat:

  • “To promote individual rights-consciousness, institutions have to implement rights effectively. However, if there is little rights consciousness, there will be less pressure on institutions to take rights seriously.” (5)

The majority of the film’s story is told via Collé’s attempts to convince the other women in the village not to have their daughter’s purified, rehearsing the reasons against the practice for members of both the village and the wider audience screening the film. Her work in the film gives voice to the young girls who initially flee the ceremony; her act of defiance years before was remembered and re-enacted by these young girls, effectively documenting how rights consciousness may be employed at the local level. This consciousness is most spectacularly celebrated at the end of the film with the rally staged by the village women for an audience of village elders. At that rally, Ibrahim demonstrates a generational power shift by reaffirming his commitment to marry the “impure” Amsatou.

 “Rights consciousness” is certainly highlighted by the prevalence of the radios in the community. This is particularly true because of the way the film uses them as one of the focal points around which the village women gather for both news and, after the radios have been taken from them, as a symbolic measure of their lack of access to both rights and information. Sembène often draws a direct connection between resistance to FGC and media. When his elder brother confronts Collé’s husband about Amsatou’s status he links the two: “She [Amsatou] has to be purified. Collé’s radio should be confiscated.”

The film’s blueprint for activism is complete when Ibrahim, the economic supporter of the village and hereditary future ruler of the Elder’s Council, is motivated by Collé’s use of local, cultural tradition to effect longstanding change, including the necessity for television and media access in the village. The forms by which media transmit images and ideas across cultures are at stake in the third of Merry’s conundrums:

  • “To have local impact, human rights ideas need to be framed in terms of local values and images, but in order to receive funding, a wider audience, and international legitimacy, they have to be framed in terms of transnational rights principles.” (5)

I have discussed the importance of the village’s access to media at some length, so to conclude I will consider the second portion of Merry’s formula; namely, that international legitimacy requires visible transnational rights principles. This principle is especially applicable to Moolaadé as an international release. The lack of an effective and consistent human rights’ court system institutionalizes the difficulty of a uniform system of justice and the ability for that system to act as an effective venue in which to challenge human rights abuses on pan-national and international levels — the very levels at which Sembène was able to solicit funding.

As it has for nearly all of his films, Filmi Domireew, Sembène’s production company, received funding from pan-African, international NGO, and European funding sources. The extent to which the film is entangled with European and human rights NGOs on a financial level demonstrates how the interaction between Western definitions of universal rights and local action touches extra-diegetically on the film’s treatment of capitalism as a force that may transmit Western-defined human rights.

Seeing the film’s position within a global discourse of human rights necessitates an exploration of the film’s funding to appreciate both the complex funding situation endemic to contemporary West African cinema as well as the centrality of the film’s staging of the modernizing potential of markets and media in its treatment of the complicated international space of global and regional human rights discourse. Because the film’s narrative is so concerned with market exchanges and the function of distinct economies within the village — financial, cultural, and gendered capital — the economic network that brings the film to the screen is a vital microcosmic layer of the film’s story.

Coinciding with Moolaadé’s release, his receiving the award from UNESCO highlights Sembène’s career-long depiction of the struggle for women’s rights and discursively asserts the role of NGOs and the United Nations as longtime financial supporters of Sembène’s films. In the case of Moolaadé, the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) for Senegal provided support for the film via four United Nations organizations: UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Development Fund (UNDP), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The WHO also contributed to the film’s budget. Nowhere was I able to locate exactly how much money these organizations contributed to the production, but the very fact of their participation exists as a material bridge between the current funding realities of African media and NGOs that use economic support to act as stewards for human rights concerns within the Global South.[42]

The subject matter of Moolaadé, the approach the film takes to its subject, and the resources needed to fund the film emerge from the same global space. In addition to NGO participation, economically and physically Moolaadé is a transnational West-African/European co-production. Its principle filming and post-production occurred in 2002 in Djerisso, Burkina Faso and Morocco and its funding was from international NGOs, EU arts subsidies, and African national production companies, so it works amidst a global space of cultural diversity often economically tied to former colonial powers.

In terms of its production, the film is a predominately West African concern. Sembène himself suggests as much when he proclaims:

“My pride is in being able to say that this film, Moolaadé, was born on the continent and from the continent. That is my personal pride. Maybe I will be able to show African filmmakers, the younger ones, that we can create everything we need within the continent.”[43]

Recognizing the bravado of a filmmaker, especially one working within a structurally underdeveloped national and spotty pan-national cinematic production space, the funding sources for the film complicate this proclamation while acknowledging the universal-to-local translation the film provides within in its narrative.

The Pan-African economic component of Moolaadé exists among the co-producers of the project, although even these have ties to the European Union. One producer, Direction de la Cinématographie Nationale (Burkina Faso), is arguably the most established West African national production fund with contributions to over forty feature films.[44] Another, Cinétéléfilms (Tunisia), is a private production company established in 1983 that provides training courses to young filmmakers and production financing; although, I was only able to find one other film to which it has contributed money.[45] The final African producer is Les Films de la Terre Africaine (Cameroon), a production and distribution company established in 1994.[47]

Much like the way the village opens to international human rights standards via the allegorical representation of international and Western nations embodied in the characters of Mercenaire and Ibrahim, the bulk of the film’s financial resources come from French sources, particularly executive producer Cine Sud Promotion. Although Filmi Doomirew, Sembène’s Senegalese production company retains international theatrical rights for Moolaadé, in both the film’s credits and U.S., U.K., and Fr. press books the French cultural subsidiary Ciné Sud Promotion is listed as the sole executive producer of the film contributing  121,959 ffr to the film’s 2003 proposed 7,000,000 ffr budget ( 1,067,143) with additional contributions from the European Commission, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture and Communication, and Centre National de la Cinématographie (France).[47]

Unusually for a film receiving funds from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ciné Sud Promotion, which stipulates that the “greater part” of its contribution must be “earmarked for post-production in France,” Moolaadé’s complete post-production was finished at the Centre Cinématographique Marocain (Morocco) where Sembène also did much of the post-production for Faat Kine in 2000.[48] The Centre was established in 1994 and is responsible for authorizing and attracting productions to the country and facilitating a Pan-African film culture in Western Africa. Most often this support is provided, as in the French model of support, for post-production work down on-site, which was the case for Sembène’s final film.[49]

The visibility of transnational values Merry suggests is necessary to receive funding from first world organizations extends beyond a view of the empowered village women. The first-world audience of the film, within which I include the NGO and EU funding apparatus, are allowed to see a depiction of a rural West African farming village where capitalism operates as a successful system for commerce, bringing with it both trade and rights.

The village’s relative prosperity is striking — Collé’s husband returns from tending the village crops and announces that it has been a good year and the market is filled with goods that Sembène shows being purchased with money, rather than credit, by various community members. By the end of the film there is a healthy pile of confiscated radios indicating that a number of the villagers have regular access to media.

Taken alongside the critiques Sembène have leveled at the debt cycle prevalent in immediately post-colonial West Africa, the depiction of capitalism in Moolaadé works alongside the need Merry outlines to use transnational principles to receive funding. Unlike the depictions of capitalism and debt in Mandabi, Xala, or “Her Three Days,” in Moolaadé, Ibrahim easily attends to the debts taken on by his father and Amsatou. Furthermore, with Amastou and Ibrahim’s marriage apparently set at the film’s conclusion, both Collé and her daughter are economically rewarded for their decision to publically demand rights for women.

By staging the public rally, the film’s penultimate assertion is that FGC may be ended when local and international institutions find common ground to secure women’s rights. Sudanese women’s rights activist Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim reminds us that ultimately, “The battle against female circumcision is a political one” that first necessitates “transformative change in the socio-economic and legal status of women,” including “decision making in and out of the home.”[50] The final lesson of Moolaadé may well be that first world money may bring economic opportunity, but it is only in combination with local customs that cultural traditions may open to universal definitions of human rights.

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