dir: Ousmane Sembene
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Of all the films I’ve ever seen on the topic of female genital mutilation in Africa, this is the best of them. By a country mile of clichés.
Of course it’s the only film about genital mutilation in Africa I’ve ever seen, or am ever going to see. It’s the best by default.
And what kind of a person could find fault with such a film? Considering the subject material, you’d have to be heartless and genitaless not to sympathise with the women of the village of Djerisso in Burkina Faso, and the squillions of women this has been done to in the name of tradition.
Let’s be a bit more honest here: the words “genital mutilation” are too vague, and the phrase “female circumcision” is offensive in its dishonesty. What they’re talking about, when they refer to the action of “purifying” a girl, is the excision of her clitoris and labia, and the sewing up of the vagina to allow only for the urethra to do what it’s supposed to.
There are different “classes” of it practiced around the world, but they all amount to the same thing: stupidity on a grand scale, and the taking away of the basic human right of sexual pleasure.
What kind of a useless world allows crap like this to still happen in this day and age? What kind of a world produces people who believe something like this could in anyway be a good thing?
You can almost understand how men could be so terrified of a woman’s sexuality. The fear of your special little lady doing the Barry White with some other guy is in many of us. Except for freaks who like watching their beloveds in the clutches and orifices of other people. If you’re reading, hi Mum and Dad, see you next weekend.
Is it so hard for these fools to understand that the clitoris is our friend, for many men and women? It gets us out of, and in to, many a tight spot, I’ll tell you for free.
The annihilation of a woman’s capacity for pleasure on a grand scale simply staggers the mind. Setting it up as a tradition, and telling your daughters it’s what Allah wants so they can be “clean” and worthy of marriage seems like the cruellest joke since religious types pointed out their god thought everything bringing us pleasure is pretty much a sin worthy of the fiery place. They’re probably still laughing about it now. Especially that bastard St Augustine.
Even the women who’ve endured it are happy to have this atrocity perpetrated upon their daughters. The people carrying out the “ceremony” on these pre-pubescent girls are women too! They even have a name for their gang (Salidana), and cool, red robes and staffs. And they look nasty. And they are more than happy to carry out the village elder’s dirty work for them.
One woman, Collè (Fatoumata Coulibaly), thinks this shit has gone on long enough. She had the horrific surgery when she was a kid, lost two unborn because of it as an adult and when the third came along (and required a hack job of a caesarean), vowed not to have her daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traorè) go through the same nightmare.
At film’s beginning children set for the knife run to Collè’s place for protection, hearing how she’d protected her own daughter. She invokes the Moolaadè, which is represented with a red, yellow and black rope tied low across the entrance to their huts.
Despite being Islamic the people of this village have deeply held and often idiotic superstitious beliefs dating back millennia. The protection she gives these girls is considered a literal sanctuary “spell” of sorts, that if broken could bring ruination upon their ignorant heads. Only she can revoke this protection by uttering the word to dispel it.
She is the second wife of a village elder, who is away on business for most of the story’s length. Not only is she expected to bow and scrape every time some guy walks past, she also has to answer to first wife Hadjatou (Maimouna Hèléne Diarra), who likes her but still treats her like a maid sometimes and sends her to room without any supper if she talks back.
Life seems pretty simple and dismal for women in the village, what with their pack animal status and lack of clitorises and all. But no depiction of the “simple” agrarian village life can ever really be simple. The lives of the men and women are what they are. These people, apart from their policy on clit-chopping, are happy people doing what they need to in order to survive.
They have laughter and song, pipe tobacco and colourful clothing. Their lives are complicated by their community’s norms and mores, their interaction between family members, friends and neighbours are complicated, and you can almost feel the weight of the outside modern world waiting for the right moment to stick its hair-sprayed and tongue-pierced head in. They work all day and many of the women at least fall asleep to the sound of their battery-operated radios.
This isn’t a National Geographic style - ethnographic study of African village life by some Westerner trying to shame people in art-houses into giving money to charity when they tearfully leave the theatre. They’re not portrayed as romanticised noble savages leading lives of passion and meaning far greater than anything us citified urban types could ever get to appreciate.
This is as honest-looking a depiction of contemporary village life as you’re ever likely to see in a fictional film. Most of the “actors” in the flick are clearly not actors, which makes a few scenes seem really stilted. But with actors in the main roles, especially Fatoumata as Collè, there’s little to worry about.
The representation of their lives, their customs, their superstitions and daily routines are completely alien to me. I don’t know how PC it sounds, but some sequences showing their ceremonial welcomes and customs of speech seemed so goddamn strange I thought maybe someone had spiked my choc-top ice cream with El Es Dee instead of boysenberry.
I don’t have a lot of experience with African village life, so it was a bit disconcerting, but nonetheless very interesting. The film chugs along at a leisurely pace since their lives chug along at a leisurely pace.
The repercussions arising from Collè’s actions expand and rapidly move outward as the forces of tradition, power and conformity in the village align against her. The village elders, like the reverend and the parents in the town where Footloose is set, are angered by this challenge to their authority.
And angry, insecure men are the kinds of men who start up these mutilation-happy traditions and death cults in the first place.
The men in general are all in a quandary about how to retain control over their women. They want revenge, and they want to ensure that the womenfolk stop getting these crazy ideas in their heads. Ideas like they should be allowed to hang on to their clitorises.
Crazy ladies. It’s that damned Oprah putting these ideas into their heads.
So they take away all of the radios to stop them hearing any information from the outside world.
Even these simple men should know by now: nothing good ever comes from pissing off the womenfolk.
When Collè’s husband Cirè returns and is shamed by the other men into taming his woman, it is not a cut and dry situation. His word is still law, but we sense his ambivalence. Still, he demands that Collè revoke her protection, and not only that, he demands that their teenage daughter who has escaped it thus far also must be purified, in order to no longer be bilakoro (unclean), and therefore worthy of marriage.
Needless to say all of needs to build to a decent conclusion, and it does. And it is resolved, staying true to the location and the characters, without resorting to a Disney level of saccharine or any false sense of closure.
Angry, ashamed people can do some terrible things, and terrible actions are taken to try to return the village to the status quo. These serve only to inspire the “rebellious” lasses further, and whilst my heart was in my mouth, it was also filled with fire for these courageous women.
It’s a bit slow, some of it is confusing, and some of it seems silly, but overall it is still a fascinating film. Whilst I was hoping for a happy ending, it’s not a predictable film following a predictable path to an expected outcome.
When I saw this interesting flick at the cinema, there was myself and three old biddies in the audience. Upon leaving, one of the hideous old crones croaked out to me, “What a lovely movie. Makes you glad you were born in a nice country like Australia, doesn’t it?”
Oh, you old dear, that’s not why the film was made, was it?
After saying “No speaka de English, stupid lady” to her in my sleaziest voice, I shook my head and left.
I wanted to tell her I doubted evoking that particular feeling in an audience was the reason 81 year old Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene went to all the bother of making the flick. It surely wasn’t to make her feel good about growing up in Manchester or Liverpool or Bendigo. After all, they were cutting off patient’s clitorises in psych institutions in Australia and elsewhere in the Western world up until the 1960s. It’s not long enough ago to really feel all superior and complacent just yet
Amnesty International says it happens to 2 million women a year, and that there are about 130 million women alive now who live with the wound. That’s a pretty horrific set of stats, and it’s not confined to Africa. It’s carried out in Indonesia and a string of other countries, despite the best efforts of legislators and even leaders of the Islamic faith such as Grand Imam Sheikh Al Azhar went on the radio to tell Muslims it wasn’t part of the Koran and for the love of Allah to stop doing it (another reason why the elders were so keen to talk the women’s radios away in the film).
It’s interesting, and enjoyable. It’s not in the “earnest but dull” category of World cinema. It’s not a documentary, and it’s not a miserable film at all. I doubt I’ve given a good enough impression of the film’s merits to inspire anyone else to go and see it, but what the hell, it’s your loss. It’s an inspiring film about someone trying to literally stick it to the man, and I liked it.
7 (billion) clitorises that deserve all the kisses, cuddles and love in the world that men (and other women, if that’s what floats your boat) should be honoured to provide them out of 10
“The era of little tyrants is over.” – Ibrahim, Moolaadè
"For what is done or learned by one class of women becomes, by virtue of their common womanhood, the property of all women.” - Elizabeth Blackwell
“Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money” – Ice Cube