By Phil Hall | October 10, 2004

If you thought Michael Moore made unsubtle political films, then wait until you see the new feature “Moolaade” by the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. “Moolaade” achieves the impossible in taking a genuine socio-political tragedy and turning it into an anvil drama which will fray the patience of the most sympathetic audiences.

Set in a small, dusty village, “Moolaade” finds four little girls seeking sanctuary in the home of Colle Ardo Gallo Sy, a woman who refused to allow her own daughter to undergo the ritual known locally as “purification”- but is known to Westerners as female circumcision and/or genital mutilation. The girls ran away from their mothers and the female traditionalists who conduct the circumcision ceremonies. Colle, who lost two babies in childbirth due to the mutilation to her vagina from the “purification” and could only deliver her surviving child through a cesarian that left her torso disfigured, invokes the custom of “moolaade” (sanctuary) which protects the children from having to return to their parents.

Colle’s action creates tensions throughout the village. The tribal elders (all men, naturally) are outraged at her attempt to subvert a time-honored tradition. The women who want to carve up the girls are equally unhappy that their authority has been challenged. Within Colle’s home, problems arise. Colle is actually one of three wives of a farmer who is not happy with her actions. One of the wives is supportive of her while the other is ambivalent. Colle’s daughter is initially displeased since her arranged marriage to the son of the tribal elder is cancelled as revenge for her mother’s actions. Her husband is both pleased with her strength and angry that his role as master of the house is being corrupted.

“Moolaade” is packed with endless confrontations which attempt to undermine Colle’s actions. Some of these are harrowing, such as an extended scene when her husband is forced to whip her in a public square. But some of the actions are plain silly, such as having all of the radios confiscated from the village’s women because it is believed Colle got her revolutionary notion from distant radio broadcasts. The fact that nearly all of the radio listening in the film involves music would suggest a ham-handed symbolizing of trying to block out the world’s influences on this tiny village.

Even as political cinema goes, “Moolaade” is uncomfortably strident in getting its point across. The story is populated with caricatures rather than characters, and the dialogue often feels like speech-making rather than genuine conversation. The little girls are, curiously, given nothing to do once their plot pegs are secured; none of the children have any meaningful scenes and it doesn’t appear that any of them can act. But then again, a lot of the non-professional adult actors in the cast give flat performances.

It also doesn’t help that Sembene demonizes Islam by having the tribal elders insist (repeatedly but erroneously) that female circumcision is a Muslim ritual. Sembene, who offered a strikingly mature consideration of Islamic and Christian traditions with his sublime 1993 drama “Guelwaar,” seems uncommonly crass towards the Muslim faith with this story. To suggest the practice of female circumcision is exclusive to Islamic Africa is atrocious and the 81-year-old Sembene, who is acknowledged as the father of black African cinema, should know better.

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