Opposing Genital Mutilation

Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene is one of the most renowned and successful directors of Africa. His film "Moolade," a manifesto against the genital mutilation of girls in Burkina Faso, won him an award in Cannes. Max Annas and Annett Busch report

One of the great misunderstandings in Europe is the idea that in an African village daily life proceeds in an orderly fashion. Guilty of spreading this cliché are the West African films set in villages, which—commissioned by and funded by today's television stations—created images of peacefulness and order in the 1990s. The peace was usually broken by an isolated conflict, which would be resolved over the course of the film.

The Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene has never ventured into this genre of the village film. Most of his films were set in Dakar. But for "Moolade," his manifesto against the genital mutilation of girls, he chose a village in the south of Burkina Faso, more than 2000 miles away from Dakar.

Behind the façade

The opening of the film is spectacular. In a complex sequence, Sembene shows the villagers' comings and goings and their relationships and allows viewers to see the fissures in the village's façade.

Soon the focus is on one courtyard, into which four girls come running, seeking the protection of one of the women there. It is the time of genital mutilations.

But the women in the courtyard want to stop the cycle of violence and cast a spell on the women who perform the mutilations: Moolade. The female circumcisers cannot enter the courtyard until the spell has been broken.

This contemplative view of everyday village life and its repetitions follows a red thread, a symbolic barricade that makes the courtyard into a protective fortress. Repetitions, at least those enacted on screen by Sembene, always pose several questions: Who will deal with this clear "no" and how? And what are the possible outcomes?

Sembene—famous novelist and filmmaker

Ousmane Sembene is now 82 years old, "Moolade" is his twelfth film in forty years, in addition he has made several documentaries and written many novels, including some he went on to film himself.

His reputation on the African continent is singular, his rank high. In Europe no other figure enjoys comparable fame. His emphatic and programmatic reproach to filmmaker Jean Rouch, "You look at us as if we were insects," marked a change in the direction of the gaze in the mid-1960s.

Taking technique and plot, stories, and everyday life and problems into one's own hand and projecting them on one's own screens was the founding motto of African cinema.

Sembene is among the first novelists and filmmakers of Africa, he has always taken Europe to task, for its colonial legacy and its historical responsibility.

In his films he has engaged in (West) African historiography, never shying away from conflicts—including ones with his own government. Often it was the women in his films who had a plan and kept things in order.

Sembene never tires of saying in interviews that Africa only survives because of the work of its women. And after "Faat Kine" (2001), "Moolade" is the second film in a trilogy to honor the lives of women, the "heroines of everyday life," as he calls them.

Self-aware women

The women who cast the "Moolade" spell do not make themselves any new friends in the village. Soon a front against them forms, and the elders instruct them to conform to the traditions. "Impurity" is the elders' favorite argument, and their code states that female circumcision is tradition.

But the women do not give in to tradition, and the conflict escalates. The fact that circumcision, pain and marriage go hand in hand means that desire, sex and discipline are also closely linked.

If the elders give in, then the conventional order will swing out of control. So the Imam declares circumcision an Islamic tradition and applies harsh measures.

The old men see their real enemy in the modern media. Sembene presents their decree to burn all radios not as a one-time affair, but as a permanent and ultimately failed effort.

Bonfires of radios

More and more radios land in the bonfire, most of them are still on, their voices, noises and music blaring out of the burning heap of metal. A comic and absurd image. The polyphony is not easy to silence, and the women are determined to go as far as necessary.

This film has nothing to do with one-dimensional social problem films. As in his earlier films, Sembene focuses on the tough process of negotiation. That genital mutilation is a bad thing is not the final message of the film, but rather its starting point.

Getting this across is, however, hard work. Sembene analyzes positions and perspectives; this has little to do with the primitive democracy of tribal powwows in the shade of the baobab trees.

The most ambiguous position is represented by an outsider. A peddler who wisecracks and flaunts his greed is ultimately the only one willing to risk his life at the decisive moment, and thereby exposes the double standard of the religious representatives. Sembene's hope manifests itself at the end in an object that points up and out of the village: an antenna…

Max Annas & Annett Busch

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Christina White


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