(Ousmane Sembene, Senegal/France, 2004)


African cinema, of the past or present, is virtually unseen in Australia. This means that we have little sense of context in which to place any individual movie that slips under the radar into our so-called boutique cinemas – and hence that we are easily prey to the thought that such work is charmingly exotic.

It also means that we are shamefully ignorant of a master filmmaker: the Senegalese-born Ousmane Sembene, who has been a prolific novelist, director and political activist since the 1950s.

Now eighty-two, Sembene has delivered one of his finest films in Moolaadé, which means sanctuary or protection. The sanctuary in question is that offered by Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) when four young girls come to her seeking refuge from the local ritual of 'the cut' – female circumcision. The piece of fabric Collé places at her entrance-way symbolises both the fragility of her resistance and its tenacity as a public gesture.

Collé is, at first, motivated more by compassion than any political agenda. But she soon comes to represent a revolutionary force in this community, as she angrily opposes the Salindana (the women who perform the brutal ritual), the male elders and her own, humiliated husband.

Like all Sembene's films, Moolaadé has a fierce, upfront political agenda. It is salutary shock, in our society which sometimes prides itself on being post-feminist, to be confronted by such a lucid demonstration of patriarchal domination and its corrosive effects on men, women, children, and the very fabric of families and communities.

However, Sembene is not out to simply decry malign oppressors and sympathise with the innocent oppressed. Every character in this drama is caught in tearing, difficult contradictions. Collé's daughter, Amasatou (Salimata Traoré), resents how she has been effectively segregated from the community. A successful young man who returns to the village wavers between traditional and modern values. And an effusive local salesman, Mercenaire (Dominique Zeïda), at once represents both the worst values of capitalism and the realistic perspective of a wider world.

Far from being a quaint spinner of folk tales, Sembene is a sophisticated handler of colour, dramatic tone and narrative structure. The flashes of humour, the rich soundtrack of music and noise, indelible images such as the veritable Babel of voices coming from a burning pile of confiscated radios: such elements coalesce to form one of the year's best and most politically potent films.

© Adrian Martin July 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search