Socialist Worker

Moolaadé — a battle of traditions

Issue No. 1955

The initiation ceremony in Moolaadé

The initiation ceremony in Moolaadé

Directed by Ousmane Sembène

In a village in Burkina Faso, West Africa, quietly defiant Collé offers sanctuary to four young girls who want to escape “getting cut” in the female initiation ritual. Collé is notorious for having refused to allow the genital mutilation of her own daughter, Amasatou.

Now Amasatou is old enough to marry and villagers speculate that no man will want a woman who has not been “purified”.

Collé passes a rope across the entrance to her family’s compound a few centimetres from the ground to invoke the village’s traditional sanctuary (moolaadé). She uses one tradition to challenge another.

The film advances at a subdued but rhythmic pace, as a series of arguments chase around the village about respect, whether for village tradition, religion, authority, husbands, mothers or fathers.

Ousmane Sembène has created a fascinating discussion on change and tradition, and a passionate call for a rejection of genital mutilation.

He wants the film to be used a basis for discussion when shown in towns and villages around Africa. He searched West Africa to find a suitable location and filmed with a largely amateur cast, speaking in their own language. He interweaves a Brechtian political parable with naturalist realism.

Throughout the imagery is beautiful, filmed in bright, saturated colours — the black, red and gold moolaadé rope, the children and livestock wandering around the village, the distinctive “hedgehog” mosque.

Tradition states that sanctuary cannot be breached until Collé releases it. Frustrated, the conservative men confiscate and in a significant scene burn the women’s radios, which are seen as the source of their subversive ideas.

Though the film could be seen as a battle of the sexes, the mutilators are themselves all women, while several men support the fight to end the practice.

Solidarity is shown both by Ibrahima, who just returned from working in Paris, and the travelling supplier of manufactured goods Mercenaire, an untrustworthy petty trader, but also a former soldier, who had been jailed for attempting to expose corruption in the army. Even Collé’s husband is sympathetic to the girls’ plight, but weak and unprepared to stand up to the village leadership.

The film is a wonderful exploration of the way tradition both carries positive gains but constantly has to be challenged and remade to fit new realities.

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