Collé Ardo Gallo Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly) counts her radio among her most precious possessions. Whenever she sends her daughter Amsatou (Salimata Traoré) to the local merchant, she makes sure that batteries are on the list. Listening to music helps her and her fellow wives (she’s second of two) to pass the time, work and play accompanied by a satisfying soundtrack, and hear occasional news of the outside world. Like other women in her small Senegalese village of Djerisso, Collé comprehends and accepts her limits, but also fully appreciates the few pleasures available to her.
As Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé begins, Collé doesn’t imagine much beyond the present: she lives comfortably in a small compound, where they are often left alone by their traveling husband. Her life changes when four young girls come to her for help. Facing “purification,” they are fearful (knowing that other girls have died following this ritual of female circumcision) and also hopeful, for they also know that, seven years ago, Collé refused to let Amsatou be cut. Collé doesn’t think twice, announcing that she will grant them protection, moolaadé, and tying a symbolic, colorful rope across the gate to the compound. As adults and goats step over this rope, the girls remain inside, protected as long as Collé refuses to utter the “redemptive word” that will end the moolaadé.
Collé’s seeming impudence upsets the Salindana, the much-respected group of red-robed women who administer the excisions. For Collé, the decision is based on personal experience: her child had to be born by caesarean section, a botched surgery that left her belly extended and scarred. Her husband reminds her that she has since produced no more children (and especially, no male heirs), but Collé responded not with remorse but with resistance; her choice to protect Amsatou from cutting made the daughter a Bilakoro, a woman deemed “unworthy” for prospective husbands.
The film presents the debate over female circumcision as a source of increasing tension between generations and, for the most part, genders; this even though believers in the practice include the Salindana, dedicated to a ritual they have followed all their lives. The discussion takes place variously — between angry men (Collé’s husband’s older brother insists she’s bringing shame on the family), and between women (Collé’s sister-wives take her part, agreeing that the mutilation is barbaric. At other times, the dispute takes a public form, as particular “sides” declare themselves. This action occurs primarily in the town center, shadowed by a gigantic ant hill (representing an ancient soul, trapped after he displeased a god) and a bright yellow mosque. Throughout, a brilliantly colored palette intimates the clashes between new and old ideas. While the men tend to do their business in white robes and cool shadows, the women toil daily, their blue, green and orange head wraps and plastic carrying bowls standing out against the landscape’s dusty tones. At night, unable to sleep because their men have taken away their radios, out of fear that hearing music and news (of coups d’etats, for instance) has encouraged their rebellion.
As the sides in this village takes shape, Collé is joined not only by frightened daughters and protective mothers, but also by the local vendor, renowned as a “womanizer” for his incessant flirting with all his female customers, and aptly named Mercenaire (Dominique T. Zeïda). Because he has traveled, the film implies, he has witnessed other sorts of relationships — familial, social, institutional — and so insists, at horrific cost to himself, that Collé’s husband stop beating her, publicly.
The other male who takes up the women’s cause is Amsatou’s fiancé, Ibrahimo, just returned to the village from France, wealthy and assimilated to other cultures. He is reluctant at first to cross his own father, who forbids him to marry a Bilakoro; after all, he’s come back to the village to fulfill his father’s dreams. But at last this Western-educated young man is won over by the sight of the women gathered like a force of nature. As their radios burn in a pile at the village center, the women stand across from their men, who remain seated, attempting a last show of control and decorum. Meanwhile, however, Collé and the other women begin dancing, pumping their arms, and crying out with joy, suddenly comprehending a newfound sense of power and voice.
Though many adherents still believe that female genital mutilation is ordained by Islam, others now see the cutting as a means to render sex painful for women, and thus ensure their lack of desire and acquiescence to their status as their husband’s property. Moolaadé shows the pain Collé endures when her husband returns from his most recent trip and subjects her to intercourse as a means to reinforce his authority; the next morning, she soothes her bloody genitals by soaking in a tub, assisted by her daughter, whose face reveals that she understands what she has escaped by her mother’s previous protection.
The 81-year-old Sembene sees Moolaadé as the second in a trilogy of films (the first was 2000’s Faat Kiné) that address changing mores in Africa. Understanding the political possibilities of film — as a commercial as well as artistic medium — Sembene makes his case with color, song, and movement. Moolaadé imagines progress toward increased equality among all Africans, across races, genders, nations, and generations.