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Culture Clash 

When trying to come up with something remotely thoughtful about Senegalese director Ousmane Sembane's brilliantly subtle Moolaade, which the New Orleans Film Festival will twice screen this week at the Prytania, I recalled what a music-critic friend of mine once said more than a decade ago. During the heat of both the grunge movement and what we sardonically dubbed the 'male emotional pain' movement of angst-ridden male singer-songwriters, my friend marveled at the music coming out of such African nations as Senegal and South Africa. The vibrant music, he noted, by artists like Youssou N'Dour and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, made the self-importance of American rock-star navel-gazing feel pretentious by comparison.

Imagine, then, Moolaade in the hands of such Western tub-thumpers as Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg (when he's in the mood), Adrian Lyne or any number of indie-indie directors where the writing sometimes overwhelms the direction. A subject as weighty as the one Moolaade addresses -- female genital mutilation -- would be lost in the string-washed musical score, the labored acting, the extreme close-ups, and of course that 'up' ending to make everything OK. But, gratefully, Moolaade was in the hands of Sembene, who at 82 has become the dean of world cinema -- who, like our own Robert Altman, refuses to slow down while unafraid to lighten up.

That is the true gift of Moolaade, which moves at its own leisurely pace, with barely a hint of a music score. This is a movie surprisingly devoid of agitprop -- the film feels instructional without feeling didactic. That's one neat trick. By the time the film is over the viewer learns a lot more than initially realized, for Moolaade is all about class and custom, traditionalism and modernism, and the most storied clash of all: men and women.

Even the film's heroine is neither larger nor lower than life: Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) is the second wife of a fairly well-respected villager in Burkina Faso who's currently out doing business. But because she has stood up to tradition in the past, Collé is something of a rebel among the womenfolk, and therefore when four girls escape a 'purification' ceremony that is essentially a sterilization process, they seek refuge in Collé's tent. (That the ceremony is run by Salindana priestesses, and not by men, is one of the film's many not-so-pleasant surprises.)

Collé, reminded too painfully of her own experiences, does for the four what she had previously done for one surviving daughter: she strands a sash across the entrance to her neighborhood and declares a 'moolaad,' which provides sanctuary for the four until she is somehow forced to break her word. How the village, ruled by a grumpy (and often humorous) tribal council of men, is able to get Collé to reverse her call for sanctuary not only serves as the film's narrative center but also gives Sembene the chance to explore his themes of sexism and modernity.

Radios owned by women that were previously tolerated by the men are suddenly forbidden because they clearly fill the women's ears with the poison of information (the true power). A tribal leader's princely son, Ibrahima (Moussa Theophile Sowie), who is betrothed to Collé's daughter, Amasatou (Salimata Traoré), returns from France with a post-millennium open-mindedness that will ultimately test his loyalty to his father and his village's customs. A merchant who is dismissed by many of the villagers as a 'mercenaire,' or mercenary, may be a money-grubber but has his own secret to tell of why he is where he is.

As is the case of most good films, very few of the characters are shaded too heavily as good or evil, but rather as people struggling with their sense of time and place. Both of Collé's fellow wives -- one older and wiser, the other younger and sassier -- may resent her actions but have legitimate reasons. The male leaders, though clearly the victims of that classic male trait of hubris, are trying to do the right thing the only way they know how. The price of modernism, Sembene points out, is a costly one; the questions become what are the traditions worth discarding, and how much does the village (or any culture) lose in the process.

A note for those turned off by the very subject matter, which admittedly is one of the creepier phrases to type into a keyboard: The most graphic scenes in Moolaade only suggest the violence. Much of the pain in this film is implied. That the film ends on a mixed note -- you have to wonder if anybody has really won or lost -- is another testament to Sembene's desire to show more than tell. If only more Western directors were so adept.

click to enlarge Coll (Fatoumata Coulibaly, right) counsels her daughter, - Amasatou (Salimata Traor), in Ousmane Sembene's - latest film,   Moolade. - NEW YORKER FILMS © 2004
  • New Yorker Films © 2004
  • Coll (Fatoumata Coulibaly, right) counsels her daughter, Amasatou (Salimata Traor), in Ousmane Sembene's latest film, Moolade.
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