While I acknowledge that celebrated filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni passed away today, I decided not to make a post about his passing, as has been my usual habit, simply on the basis that I've never seen any of his films. There are four of his films on my "Films to Watch in 2007" list, but I didn't get to them in time. So, I will just acknowledge his passing, and I will comment on his legacy at another time.
However, prior to starting this blog, another important figure in world cinema passed away in June, so I would comment on this film from the late Senegalese director, Ousmane Sembene.
Another reason for this decision is that Moolaadé has not yet been available on DVD from New Yorker Films, despite having been released in 2004. While it mostly stayed within the film festival circuit, which is where I saw it, it did enjoy a tremendous amount of critical acclaim, and deservedly so. Well, through some resourcefulness, I managed to track down a Canadian copy of the film, and it arrived over the weekend, and since I was between Netflix movies, I decided to rewatch it tonight.
This film perfectly symbolizes why I love foreign cinema as much as I do: it gave me a glimpse into a culture that I never had any exposure to and likely never will. And it takes an important issue from that culture with which I was unfamiliar and makes it feel so important and urgent.
The story takes place in a village, where they are governed between Islam and some of the tribal beliefs that predated their conversion to that faith. And one of the outdated beliefs they still hold onto is the "purification" ritual.
The one who rejects this is the central character Collé, played by Fatoumata Coulibaly. Long ago, Collé endured the "purification," which we come to learn is female circumcision (through later research, I learned what exactly this entails: they slice off the clitoris and labia). However, Collé was terribly scarred through the procedure, and in adulthood, lost all of her children except for one, which they managed to deliver through caesarian, but leaving further scarring across her stomach. When the time comes for her daughter, Amastaou, to be "purified," Collé steadfastly refused. In doing so, she remains a "Bilarako," which I think would mean that she is an impure woman, and based on tribal culture and the rules of the patriarchal hierarchy in the village, she will never be married.
Seven years after Collé's initial refusal, some of the young girls escape the purification ceremony and turn to Collé for protection, knowing that she refused to have her own daughter cut (the ceremony takes place every seventh year). She offers them protection through a "moolaadé," a spell that grants them protection from harm, and from what I understand, this term roughly translates to "sanctuary."
She ties a cord made of yellow, red, and black ribbon across the entry way to her home, signifying the boundry which keeps the girls safe. Tribal lore scares away anyone who tries to take the girls, but it also keeps the girls trapped inside, for if they venture past the rope, they are no longer safe.
And what follows disrupts everything in the village. By granting the girls the moolaadé, Collé turns everything upside down in the village: a woman's place in a patriarchal society where women don't dare disobey men, the local customs that they clung onto despite how antiquated, unsafe, unsanitary, and deadly the purification is, and even how a Bilarako is viewed.
Although it does seem to end a little too cleanly for my taste, it is still a fascinating film showcasing an issue I really didn't have any exposure to or understand. While this may seem like such a barbaric and unheard of practice in our society, the fact remains that this still goes on in other parts of the world, and it's wonderful that Sembene, in his final film, managed to bring this issue to world's attention.
While I hope they finally do bring this out on DVD in the States to wider distribution, I suspect only a handful of cinephiles will watch. But even for those few, it will make you see the world, or at least one small corner of it, in an entirely different light.