By Ousmane Sembène

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A hawker walks into the village. At once, the camera reveals its desire to show the social geography: a high angle shot on the entire village focuses progressively on the women at work – it is they who assure the village livelihood. The beginning of the film is, then, a geography of relations, exchanges and powers. This hawker nicknamed « Mercenary » (Dominique T. Zeïda) is at the centre of a circulation that goes beyond the simple objects he supplies the village: not only does he fix the prize of the stale bread bought on the cheap in the city, but he recalls the realities: French batteries last longer but are more expensive than those sold locally. More than that, he is a charmer and cheeky; an outsider who examines the village relations and the relation to tradition with a critical, involved eye. But then we learn that his nickname « Mercenary » comes from his tragic past as a Senegalese soldier: is Sembène staging his own persona? He ends up spitting out: « Damned Africa! » faced with the abuses of the powers that be, and particularly their way of appropriating young girls through marriage: « Paedophiles! »- an accusation already heard during his press conference at the 2003 Fespaco (cf. review on the website). But Sembène also experienced many rejections: the fate that awaits « Mercenary », a disturbing observer turned participant, is the one reserved for those who disrupt the established order.
Another outsider walks into the village like a saviour: Ibrahima, the Chief’s son, back from Europe, loaded with gifts but also modern instruments, starting with a television. He embodies the globalization in progress but his journey overseas has not necessarily made him critical of the backward traditional practices: he has to understand the women’s revolt before he rebels against his father who threatens to disinherit him. Jeopardizing his social position requires courage.
Sembène does not base his screenplay on an outside that comes to guide women in their fight: they are lucid enough to fight and make their condition progress. Renewal comes from the women themselves and from one in particular, Colle Ardo Gallo Sy, wonderfully played by a both subtle and intense Fatoumata Coulibaly (cf. our interview). This woman takes advantage of a tradition, the inviolable right of asylum (moolade), to protect four little girls who have fled the female circumcision ritual, that tradition insists on calling « purification ». If they choose Colle Ardo’s house, it is because they know that she chose not to excise her own daughter, Amsatou, giving her the strength to oppose the men’s verdicts. Colle Ardo takes a red and yellow rope and bars the entrance to her house with it: the symbol is clear, easily surmountable but respected by everyone. On the other hand, her husband, the notables and the exciseuses unite to try and force her to say the word that will lift the protection. To make her sway, they try persuasion before turning to flogging, in an impressive classic scene orchestrated by Sembène with the same mastery as in his greatest films, which brings the tension to its peak. One has to see Colle Ardo resisting the blows, cheered on by all the women encouraging her not to give in (« Hold tight, don’t say it »), while her husband goes for her unrelentingly with his whip, shouting « Say it! », echoed by the notables’ and the exciseuses’ cries: « Crush her » and « Show her who’s boss »!
« Wassa! » (« We’ve won! »), sing the women after their victory over the « little-girl killers ». While the film seems to suggest that female circumcision is above all reprehensible for the accidents it causes, Sembène is definitely talking about barbarity and mutilation. The issue of female pleasure is never mentioned but when Sembène alternates the episode of the excision with the harshness of Colle Ardo’s husband when he makes love to her, words are superfluous. It is the same blood of women that flows.
Speech is also essential in the film without being its centre: by confiscating the radios that bring a wind of freedom with their different ideas, men naïvely attempt to control thoughts: « Our men want to imprison our minds! » – How to lock up something invisible? The radios piled up for an auto-da-fé, that the camera focuses on several times, resemble the termites’ nest that represents tradition. Even piled up as scrap, they continue to diffuse their own multiple sound: they can’t be reduced to silence that easily. Only the radios interrupt the soundtrack comprised predominantly of kora and flute but also of the village sounds: like in films opposing tradition and modernity, social order is a character in its own right. It is personified by the griot who regulates, praises, sets the tone, cites the notables’ ancestry, translates, conveys the Dolitigui’s decisions and reminds everyone: « Let us not forget that each thing has its place ». When, victorious, the women let everyone know they won’t be respecting the tradition of excision anymore, Sanata robs the griot of his laudatory role, but this time to inscribe the change in the new order of things. When accused of betraying the men, Ciré (Rasmane Ouedraogo), Colle Ardo’s husband, convinced by the pertinence of the change after all, concludes: « Trousers alone do not make one a man ».
It then only remains for Ibrahima to cap it confronting his father, the chief, who has just hit him: « The era of petty kings is over ». Because, of course, Sembène positions himself vis-à-vis the question of power, not opposing the women to all men but to those who follow the notables, as well as the exciseuses who take advantage of the established order. After being the symbol of a cultural rooting in Black Girl, masks are now only a vision frightening young girls: Africa is not critical enough of its traditions. It is not a matter of forgetting them but of using them wisely, like the moolade for protection: women know how to do it; let us listen rather than bully them, Sembène suggests. It is thanks to their strength that the traditional ostrich’s egg is replaced by a television antenna in the last image: mature men know how to pick and choose the influences, there is no point in cutting yourself off from the world. Africa is in itself already multicultural: the film is in Dyula, moolade is an old Fula word, the technicians are Senegalese, Beninese, Malian and Nigerian, the shoot took place in the Banfora region in Burkina-Faso but on the borders of the Ivory Coast and Mali…
In the space of two gripping hours, Sembène drives the multi-layered point home. True, one may regret that he didn’t set his film in the more actual context of the women’s associations that do an extraordinary job raising awareness in many quarters. He prefered a symbolic situation. It is a filmic choice: in that, the old lion does not renew his style but, unlike in Faat Kiné that had disappointed on this level, raises it to its best via the epic and in his very own way of speaking collectively through the story of an individual to whom he pays a constant tribute through the gentleness of the framing and the special care he gives to her face and movements. Using the power of language as he would a razor, without ever letting it take over the action, retaining in each character the weight of contradiction needed to avoid the stereotype, directing his actors with an iron hand, multiplying the flashbacks and neglecting nothing that forces adhesion, the Sembène of Moolade convinces, just as he did at the 2004 Cannes Festival where he was awarded the « Un certain regard » Prize, faced with the most blasé public, the most blasé audiences completely reticent to African cinema.

Translated by Céline Dewaele///Article N° : 6655

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