'Moolaadé' Earns Acclaim With Story of Mutilation and Protest (12/04)

At the movies, Africa is often the setting for war. Her colonial history is illustrated in glaring detail in Gillo Pontecorvo's classic The Battle of Algiers, and in memorable war epics such as Zulu and Zulu Dawn, but Africa’s internecine warfare is also blissfully ignored as it was in William Wellman’s Beau Geste. In Hollywood, Africa is the backdrop for love and adventure, in countless safari films, the Tarzan movies, in John Ford’s Mogambo and Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa. Closer to the heart of Africa, and annealed in the memory of every baby boomer, are the lions of Born Free. But have we really explored Africa?

African-born filmmakers are still practically unknown in the United States despite spectacular art-house releases such as Senegalese director Joseph Gai Ramaka’s Karmen Gei, Tunisian director Raja Amari’s Satin Rouge, and Ivory Coast filmmaker Roger Gnoan M’Bala’s Adanggaman. Even an African considered one of the cinema’s old masters, Ousmane Sembene, a native of Senegal, is not the household name his European contemporaries have become. Sembene, who studied at the legendary Gorki Studios in Moscow, was the first to make a film in Wolof, one of the native languages of Senegal. His narrative and documentary shorts and features have been little seen in the U.S., but that may change with New Yorker Films’ release of the acclaimed Moolaadé, set in Burkina Faso.

Sembene’s latest is about the African practice of female genital mutilation. Only a lionhearted man would consider writing and directing a film about this much-contested and sanguinary practice, and Sembene, at 81, is just that. When we met, he was clad in jeans and perched comfortably on a mid-Manhattan hotel bed, with Samba Gadjigo, his biographer and translator, seated on a chair beside him. (Sembene speaks French and several African languages.) Gracious, erudite and gallant, the filmmaker embodies the French ideal of intellectual courage—he spent many years as a political activist in France—yet it is clear his soul belongs to sub-Saharan Africa. “I try to understand my society from within and I try to understand my times,” he says. “I have seen all the classics and I have studied them, but my references are different.” Moolaadé, which won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year, is the first film in which Sembene used two cameras. “It’s easier,” he remarks, as though it would not have mattered if he only had one. “The laws of creation are the same: A minute in a film is a minute in a film anywhere. What you put in that minute and how you put it there is what provides the context.”

Asked if he worked differently with his cinematographer Dominique Gentil on Moolaadé (the Wolof word for “sanctuary”) than he had on Faat Kiné (2000), for instance, Sembene smiles. “No. I have a script, he reads it, but also we beat each other.” Sembene’s screenplay is gracefully simple and the film is beautifully shot. Set in a village chosen by the director because of its unusually shaped mosque, Moolaadé centers around Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), a woman who shelters four girls about to embark on their “purification,” the ritual of genital mutilation. “It is very, very difficult to speculate about the origin of female genital mutilation, but I am convinced that to perpetuate it is a crime,” Sembene declares. “It is a crime that stems from people’s ignorance and from their fear of confronting the future. It is easier to hide behind past values than to face building one’s future.”

It is not surprising that Sembene should be the first to make a narrative film critical of FGM. He is a filmmaker who has always honored women in his work. In Black Girl (1966), an intensely personal film, Diouana, an African maid, is mistreated by the French family who employ her; in Sembene’s able hands, her suffering becomes an eloquent metaphor for the evils of colonialism. In Emitai (1971), about a dispute between Diola villagers and French soldiers, the women heroically confront the soldiers while the men consult the gods. In Ceddo (1977), a captured princess saves her village from aggressive Islamization, and in Faat Kiné—already a feminist classic—named for its heroine, a gas station manager, Sembene celebrates what he calls the “everyday heroism” of women.

In Moolaadé, Collé, mutilated as a child, provides sanctuary to the girls who arrive at her doorstep but she does so at her own peril. Sheltering them requires implacable resistance to the Salindana—the women who perform the mutilation—and a violent confrontation with the Islamic patriarchy of the village who encourage the mutilation by refusing to marry “unpure” women. Collé’s battle is emblematic of those taking place across Africa, even in Burkina Faso, where FGM was outlawed in 1992. “All women are warriors,” Sembene declares. “In Moolaadé, Collé does not shout. She struggles until she is carried by the other women. Then she assumes a leadership role and the women follow her.” In fact, Collé’s actions are regicidal, but Sembene is no stranger to idol-bashing. An atheist, the director makes it clear in Moolaadé and in Ceddo (banned in Senegal) that he believes Islamization, along with colonialism, has robbed Africans of their identity.

Asked about the touches of humor in Moolaadé, which come at the expense of the men, Sembene replies: “I think you have to approach this subject lightly at first, but you have to have a deeper perspective. It is different than documentary film. You don’t want to show the cutting of a little girl. I don’t think art is meant to humiliate the human body. If you cannot show something that is sublime, then you lose everything.” Like much of Sembene’s other work, the film falls solidly in the griot tradition. “For me, everything happens in community,” he says. “The community has to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a practice. That’s why I tried my best to treat it the way I treated it, telling the story the way I do.” Women, Sembene explains, are ingrained from very early childhood to the practice of mutilation. “They are not even aware that they are accomplices to their own misfortune. Fortunately, nowadays there are a lot of young women who themselves have been mutilated who refute their daughters’ subjugation.”

After participating in a railroad strike that mobilized all of French West Africa in the late 1940s, Sembene emigrated to France and became a “docker” in Marseilles. His free time was spent at the library, where he discovered books on black pride and African heritage, mostly written by non-Africans. This inspired him to pen his first novel, Le Docker Noir (The Black Docker), in 1956. Half a dozen other novels followed including Xala, a satire about post-independence Africa, which Sembene adapted to film in 1974. The quest to portray the essence of Africa and Africans has preoccupied him ever since. “My concern,” he explains, “even now with Moolaadé, is how to speak to Africans and to the others.” Sembene believes that for non-African audiences he must first accurately portray the landscape. “It’s not easy. For instance, we walk in open air. We have an excess of light.”

That light, Sembene points out, is the starting point of a shot. “The sun does not wait for you. We have to choose an appropriate time and moment to make a shot. I think for me cinema is not just action or the words; it is image that speaks. At the same time, I don’t think that the image should hide or erase the words and motion. These are difficult things to manage.” And does the cinematographer help? “Unfortunately, the cinematographers do not read—they read the script once, they agree with you, but when they are on the set, the issue is completely different. The night before I come on the set, I have everything in my mind. I know where everything will be. On location, the cinematographer is there for the sun, because the most difficult thing is to domesticate that light. You have to cut the rays of the sun because sometimes you have them falling vertically. When the rays are falling that way and you are filming black people, you will never get the details of their faces. Now I must say that even though cinematographers are difficult, they are sometimes right.”

The biggest challenge shooting Moolaadé, Sembene says, was the pigeons. “They were everywhere in the village, and you cannot make them shut up. Also, every time you change camera position, the sound person has to move, but what happens often in Africa is the wind changes direction and gets right into the microphone. Many times during the shoot, between the pigeons and the wind, my sound man just threw up his hands and abandoned the set.” Sembene laughs, as he does often during the interview. His laugh is hardy and infectious, but he can quickly become reflective. When asked about the beauty of his film and the apparent artlessness with which he achieves that beauty, Sembene pauses. He instructs Gadjigo to tell me: “Here I am talking about my own heritage, my own perception of what an artist ought to be.”

With that understood, the filmmaker launches into metaphor, his characteristic way of communicating ideas. “When, for instance, you plan what to wear, you choose for yourself the best and the most beautiful clothing. You make yourself beautiful, but when you step outside on the street, did you make yourself beautiful for yourself or for the people who are meeting you in the street? Of course, you have some self-satisfaction and you respect the way the other perceives you—but the others, when they see you beautifully dressed, looking good, they also honor you. For me, that is what the creative process is like.” Sembene’s aesthetic involves representing significant ideas or particularly dolorous emotions—like Collé’s inability to have pleasurable sex—in one simple but unforgettable image. In Black Girl, it’s Diouana’s neatly packed suitcase; in Moolaadé, it’s Collé’s finger, bloodied from her attempt to stifle her screams. “Framing is everything. I think people take more time looking at one given flower than looking at a field full of flowers,” he says.

In African tradition, age is revered and Sembene, both because of his long career and his generosity toward the young African filmmakers he continues to inspire, is spoken of in panegyrical terms in any discussion of African cinema. That veneration, however, does not guarantee him money to make films. “The people who fund films are merchants. In all cultures, in all races, they are merchants,” he declares. “Take, for instance, a taxi driver in New York. You know that you are going to end up fighting. In Dakar also and in Johannesburg, if you take a taxi you always know you are going to fight. The taxi drivers don’t need to talk to each other. It’s instinctive; it’s their way. That is the way with merchants.” Sembene shrugs. “To be a good artist, to strive to be better, that is all.”