Ousmane Sembene's Moolaade is story of struggle between sexes in rural Senegal. A bunch of brave women, lead by fearless and upright, Collé, fight against female circumcision. Like Sembene's other masterpieces, this one is rooted in its soil but has something universal to say about the condition of women everywhere. In some ways it is close sibling to all those films that honestly observe condition of women in different societies (Kiarostami's Ten, Ray's Devi, Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake) and also those grass-root efforts that try to propel change in society (like the one Vidya points out here). I wanted to write about Sembene’s Moolaade for long because like other Sembene’s cinema, it is didactic and made with an ambition that it will elicit ground-level action from his country-men-and-women., which is such an antithesis to my understanding of films. I have seen many big ships artistically sink preaching in their last reels. It will not be an overstatement that I am scared of cinematic preaching, because by nature, its simplistic and shuts the doors of complex understanding, which equips us to slowly develop our own skills of both subjective and objective understanding.
Watching Moolaade made me excited about the possibilities of honest didactic cinema (actually Girish wrote about didactic cinema in his blog sometime back and took films of Sembene as an example of that), a film art so devoid of irony and so in your face that it engages you like an activist for a cause (like the women-folk in Moolaade). It remains a mystery to me that how it is done (I must say at this point that Sembene does not sacrifice cinema of image because throughout the film we notice the simple compositions of segregation and boundaries, and images with metaphors [a pile of radios snatched from the women and set to fire, with a worshipping place in the background]) but at the end of Moolaade, I not only felt for the cause and its victims, but also about tremendous power of such efforts and the change that they can bring to our societies. I am not sure, but the key is not to speak for them, but speak through them. Women folks, lead by Colle, speak for themselves – as women and more importantly as active members of society – caught between lines of tradition, religion and family.
It’s obviously not a story told as reported in a women’s magazine, but Sembene takes special care about whose voice is it? It is not the voice of a Senegalese woman who witnesses her fellow countrywomen in distress, it is not voice of a liberal man who acknowledges the barbarianism of his society, and it’s the voice of a woman who has gone though it and witnesses kids around her go through it. I think, it makes a lot of difference when the final confrontation takes place between men and women. It is a highly charged sequence which is staged like a street play where every woman comes out of “her” space, to the forefront and performs with passion. It’s a magnificent display of solidarity that things can be better for the next generation if they act now.
In an earlier sequence – one of those sequences which justify the existence of cinema as an art form - a quietly weeping woman who has recently lost her daughter during circumcision, starts to sing as she remembers her child and is slowly joined by other consoling women folks. One can only imagine the reaction (and be happy with lumps in his throat), when the film would have been shown to the people of a Senegalese village. All the standing ovations should have stood to respect that moment of connection between life and image under the open sky, as mothers – on and off screen - would have grabbed their sleeping babies closer to their breasts.