An issue that challenges the convictions of even those fervently committed to respecting the beliefs of other cultures, the practice euphemistically known as female circumcision and more accurately dubbed female genital mutilation remains common in much of Africa. Usually blanketed in the cloaks of Islam (though it has no support in the Koran and is rarely practiced in the rest of the Muslim world) and hygiene (though it frequently kills its subjects), it remains a topic that most would rather not contemplate, and one easy to ignore from a distance. Continuing a lifelong practice of plunging into the issues, 81-year-old Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene addresses it directly with Moolaadé, a film as notable for its vibrant portrait of rural African life and universal resonance as for its political potency.
In a remote village that serves as the film's sole location, four girls take shelter with Fatoumata Coulibaly, an independent-minded matriarch known to have refused to let her own daughter (Maimouna Hélène Diarra) submit to the procedure. Declaring a "moolaadé," a kind of mystical protection, she offers the girls sanctuary in her home, much to the consternation of the female elders who perform the operation and the patriarchs whose authority is threatened by her defiance. It sounds like an irredeemably grim premise, but Sembene addresses it with a disarmingly light touch. Without losing sight of the seriousness of his subject matter, he tells the story by accumulating the details of village life. Batteries, for instance, anchor another related drama that plays out in the background. Powering handheld radios in a place without electricity, they serve as the only connection to the outside world, and to broadcasts that don't necessarily support all the village elders' teachings. A traveling salesman (Dominique Zeïda) supplies them at a small fortune, and though Moolaadé plays his shameless profiteering and womanizing for laughs at first, it eventually digs into their more serious implications.
But however much his attention strays, Sembene always returns to a single focal point: a heroine with eyes saddened by experience, but made righteously fiery with the hope that she can reduce the misery of future generations. Sembene lets his admiration carry over to his other characters. Shamed by his peers, Coulibaly's husband toes the village line in disciplining her, but melts with respect when she refuses to back down. Never hiding his didactic purpose, Sembene clearly supports her all the way, and though Moolaadé doesn't shy away from the task of educating its viewers about the brutality of "purification," it works equally well as a tribute to righteous defiance wherever it surfaces. Standing her ground, Coulibaly looks like everyone else who's had the courage to reject injustice and oppressive tradition, and in the process, she makes the troubles of Africa look a little more familiar to the rest of the world.