Moolaadé is a film by the late Senegalese director Ousmane
Sembene. In a village in Burkina Faso
(in western Africa), a conflict has
erupted–six girls who are to be “purified” by genital mutilation have escaped.
Two drown themselves in a well, and the other four seek sanctuary with a woman
named Collé. Collé has not allowed her own daughter to be “purified” and has
suffered condemnation by conservative elements in the village. She casts a protective
spell called “moolaadé” to give the girls sanctuary. The red-robed priestesses
who perform the “cutting” cannot touch the girls as long as they are so
The above synopsis makes Moolaadé sound impossibly grim,
and the subject–of female circumcision–strikes most westerners as repellent.
The genius of the film is that it is anything but grim, and seems instead like
a magical African fairy tale. There is a young prince (the son of the local
tribal chief, returned from Europe), a fair
damsel (the beautiful daughter of Colle), and an assortment of gremlins,
witches, and ogres. The village itself has a fairy tale quality, with its
walled compounds, drum-shaped storage buildings, and its 150-year-old mosque,
bristling like a porcupine with wooden stakes.
Part of the charm of the movie is that Sembene takes the
time to show us life in the village in a way that is tender and loving: he
shows us the scampering baby goats, the mother guinea hens and their chicks, the
village mothers washing their struggling babies, and even the little toads hopping
by a drainspout. The result is an airiness, gentleness, and lilt to the pace of
the storyline that is a pleasure. I also found myself transfixed by the
beautiful clothing of the villagers, especially of the women. The humblest
woman was a fashion diva wearing vividly colored robes, jewelry, and elaborately
wrapped skirts and headdresses.
Sembene was also a writer, and we have a book called African Short Stories (823.0108996 AFR), which includes one of his stories.
Roger Ebert has included Moolaadé, in his “Great Movies
Archives,” noting that the villagers “…despite some of their practices, are
deeply decent and civilized, and Sembene loves them for it.” This is the film
of a wiseman, and it’s a privilege and pleasure to watch it.