AKA: Magical Protection, Protection
Year Released: 2004
Distributor: New Yorker Films
Origin: Senegal/Burkina Faso/France/Cameroon/Morocco/Tunisia
Running Time: 124 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 17+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Dreams of Dust, Mandabi, Desert Flower, Shinaakht, Honor Diaries
-The subject of female genital mutilation plays a major role in this movie and will be discussed in this review. Viewer discretion is advised.
-The city where Moolaade takes place will be addressed as Djerrisso, but it can also be spelled Dierisso.
-Moolaade is the final film to be directed by Ousmane Sembene who was 81 at the time of its creation and would die three years later. This is also one of the few films he directed that didn’t feature any Wolof and the only film he made that uses Bambara as a major form of dialogue which makes sense given the story taking place in Burkina Faso where it’s one of the official languages there.
-This film won the Prize Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Other such movies to win that same award would be Blissfully Yours, Border, and California Dreamin’ to name a few.
-Hilarious in Hindsight: There’s a scene where Colle licks batteries to test how much juice is in them before inserting them into a radio. This is the 2nd movie I reviewed to involve women licking batteries since I’ve seen that exact same thing (albeit with COMPLETELY different circumstances) with the main character from the Korean movie I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. That movie came out just two years after Moolaade, so could Sembene’s work be an unexpected influence on that dark comedy?
-Colle is played by Malian actress Fatoumata Coulibaly. Some of her other film work involves Guimba the Tyrant, Tourbillon a Bamako, and Aphrodite: the Garden of the Perfumes among others. Outside of her work as an actress, she is a journalist, movie director, and much like the Colle character, she is against female genital mutilation.
-Djerrisso is a rural town in the Cascades Region of Burkina Faso. The last known population count according to the country’s census is 477 people living there.
-Culture Bonus/Geography Bonus: Ibrahima gets the nickname of “Francenabe” from the local salesman Mercenaire. For those not too familiar with nationality demonyms, this joke may be lost on you. The character Ibrahima comes back from France and becomes wealthy in the process while he’s originally from Burkina Faso. People from Burkina Faso are called “Burkinabe” much like how people from America are Americans, people from England are English or people from the Congo (either one) are Congolese. That nickname is a combination of Ibrahima’s dual citizenship.
Looks like I get to return to the illustrious Ousmane Sembene’s works as well as going back to Burkinabe films even though this is directed by a Senegalese director. For those that don’t remember, my first entry into reviewing something from Burkina Faso as well as the first African film I viewed for Iridium Eye was Dreams of Dust. I feel that this past year and even more so this year, I’ve been doing my best to review more films from the cradle of civilization. Now, Sembene is no stranger to mentioning uncomfortable topics in some of his films especially anti-colonialism, racism, and even covering a horrific event in World War II that was obscured by so many textbooks (that’s Camp de Thiaroye, in case you’re wondering). This next topic was something that is still rarely mentioned in the film and is still a thing in some African countries: female genital mutilation. Without going into too much detail, this is a grisly procedure where females have that part of the body removed via a blade before being reattached with needlework. By the way, the patients don’t get any kind of morphine or painkillers during the process, infections happen, and it’s been reported that fifteen percent of girls who go through FGM die from their wounds according to Kenyan gynecologist Dr. Rosemary Mburu. This is still a highly sensitive topic to this day and Sembene wanted to address this issue with this original screenplay that would also double as his final film before joining the ancestors in 2007.
Will this be a highly-conscious swan song for Senegal’s beloved filmmaker or will it be a preachy blot on Sembene’s legacy?
Moolaade takes place in the tiny isolated village of Djerrisso, Burkina Faso. It’s far away from the other cities, the buildings are simple as well as near termite mounds, and the tallest building is a spiky-looking clay mosque that has an ostrich egg atop the highest point of the place of worship. Djerrisso is away from urban life and is a bit of a theocracy as elders from the mosque run the town with their own type of fundamentalist rule. One such rule involves the girls being subjected to FGM in order to be suitable wives in the future and there’s a group of women known as the Salindana (“Salinda” being the Bambara term for FGM as well as “Purification”). There’s a woman named Colle Gallo Ardo Sy who was subjected to Salinda during her childhood and utterly despised it. Even though she got married (second of three wives for her husband, by the way), she didn’t let her daughters get subjected to this cutting and her condition caused two miscarriages while her pregnancy with her eldest living daughter Amasatou (now a young adult) was because of a C-section. The Salindana constantly harass her and the other women who refuse to let their daughters get cut, but Colle puts the Moolaade spell on the village by using a rope near the entrance where one can trip on it if they don’t watch. Should the Salindana cross the entrance, they could die from the curse. This escalates as a low-key rebellion against the elders and even an “outsider” of sorts with the wealthy French residing, yet Burkinabe-born Ibrahima returns to the village.
I’m used to seeing Sembene’s older works with Camp de Thiaroye being the most recent one I saw prior to Moolaade which came out in the 80s. Seeing a more modern film from him was a very nice touch. It’s still something that could only come from his mind. His penchant for cinematic realism certainly continues albeit with crisper and 21st-century cameras. Even though he uses nonprofessional actors, they all shine with their respective roles with normal activities, anger, and the very uncomfortable parts where FGM was involved (thankfully, it’s not shown) where the girls legitimately looked and sounded horrified. The usage of traditional music was on point much like his other works which are good. The music is never overblown or distracting, but they certainly add to the scenes. There was even creative sound design with the confiscated radios blaring simultaneously with music and news programs going on. Speaking of the music, shame on anyone if they think that the recurring vocal track sounds like the intro to a certain theme song from a very unoriginal culturally appropriating animated film that takes place in Africa. The lyrics are in Bambara and not Swahili which is completely different! Okay, moving on… I did like the usage of the radios as metaphors for enlightenment and the confiscation of them as a form of censorship. Even the final scene of an antenna was simple, yet very effective in its message. This could’ve also been fodder for a “Black men ain’t spit” theme like something from a BET Her or OWN movie, but it shows that it’s not the case with some of the men (mainly Ibrahima) being heroic and even with the Salindana being merciless siding with the hardline elders.
Moolaade does have its own faults. While the anti-FGM message is certainly one that needs to be said, it gets very didactic especially in the end despite the plot development making sense. It was also hard to keep track of a bunch of the characters since there is a lot there, so it was hard to remember everyone’s names. The aspect of the Moolaade did seem a bit shallow and it’s unclear if it was just superstition or just unseen magical realism since there aren’t really any consequences shown, so that was a bit of a plot hole or some muddled plotting. That aspect could’ve been handled so much better. I know Islam plays a major role in the film especially since Burkina Faso is a Muslim-majority nation, but some of the religious aspects can be quite overt. Thankfully, it doesn’t use strawman arguments against religion or spirituality in the narrative (I’m looking at you, The Invention of Lying) and it’s even brought up with how FGM isn’t mandated by the Quran, but I think some people will be uncomfortable with characters talking about that aspect in multiple conversations mainly with the elders and their stark hypocrisy. To be fair, at least it was intentional when it came to writing them. I’ve critiqued movies with overt Christian themes, so this isn’t a knock on anything for having themes or portrayals of that worldview. While this film has a great story, I thought it dragged in different parts during its two-hour run time. A couple parts did veer towards being tedious to me, so be warned about it and don’t fall asleep.
Ousmane Sembene’s final film isn’t my favorite from him, but it was certainly a great entry in his filmography. Moolaade was such a daring movie to cover a very serious subject and handle it quite well. The acting was very strong and multiple scenes will hit people in the feels. Sembene’s usage of metaphors with basic objects is very ingenious. However, the narrative does get preachy at times and it does drag on at different junctures. Moolaade is something I would still recommend for any movie fan that likes gritty storytelling and isn’t afraid of morbid subjects.
RIP, Ousmane Sembene.
Adjustable Point Scores:
-Add 1-2 points if you’re a fan of Ousmane Sembene’s work.
-Add 1 point if you like realistic movies.
-Subtract 1-3 points if the concept of FGM makes you shudder.
-Subtract 1-3 points if you’re very uncomfortable with abuse shown onscreen.
-Great realistic camera work
-Daring to show the horrors of FGM in a believable light
-Meanders at times
-Gets didactic with the anti-FGM narrative
-The usage of witchcraft and curses is very unclear
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Advisory: Moolaade has to be one of the most adult movies Ousmane Sembene has done much like Camp de Thiaroye, so this is certainly not for kids. Female genital mutilation plays a major role in the plot and there are girls who have that done against their will in two different scenes. They obviously don’t show the procedure, but you see them screaming and one girl character dies off-screen as a plot point. There are adult themes such as domestic abuse, polygamy, sex, and female nudity. Some parts of the movie get disturbing like how Ibrahima’s father (one of the elders) makes a counter-offer for his son not allowed to marry the “bilakoro” Amasatou and suggests marrying an eleven-year-old cousin as a bride instead which he thankfully refuses as well as calling him out for child abuse. Even the womanizing Mercenaire hates the elders and truth bombs Ibrahima by saying the leaders sanctioned pedophilia for having child brides as an option in the village. The language gets very strong as I never expected the F-word to be spoken that much in Bambara. The irony of it is most of the strong profanity comes from the elders as a contrast to their “holier than thou” ruse.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Moolaade is property of New Yorker Films. The screenshot is from Ebert Fest and is property of New Yorker Films.