posted to www.marxmail.org on October 6, 2004
As “Moolaadé” starts, we see four prepubescent girls running into the compound of Collé Ardo Gally Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly), one of the three wives of a West African farmer. They are seeking asylum from a purification rite centered on the removal of the clitoris. As a young girl, Collé refused to submit to the procedure, as well she might since at best it is horribly painful and at worst results in permanent injury or death to the victim. She has also refused to allow her own teenage daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traoré) to be circumcised. In their small farming village steeped in patriarchy and Islamic fundamentalism, such “impure” women usually remain unmarried.
The young girls are willing to take that risk since word about the horrors of the ritual spread fast in a small village. Collé decides to grant them “moolaadé,” or sanctuary. She ties a multicolored cord across the portal of her compound, which under the laws of her village keeps the knife-wielding women charged with the duty of carrying out the ritual at bay.
In deciding to resist male oppression and religious backwardness, Collé personifies the kind of struggle taking place all across Africa today. In writing and directing such a film, the 81 year old Ousmane Sembene has not only remained consistent with his own progressive vision of a new Africa; he has also made the greatest film of a career spanning four decades.
Using mostly unprofessional actors and filming on location in a Djerisso, a small town in Burkina Faso, Sembene serves as a kind of griot to traditional society. The dialogue is written with a high degree of faithfulness to the way that traditional people speak. However, Sembene’s own political vision of a more just and more rational society permeates the drama in a seamless fashion. Ordinary people articulate extraordinary hopes for a better world using plain but poetic language.
One of the more interesting characters is “Le mercenaire,” played by Dominique Zeïda, an itinerant peddler who sells clothing, pots and pans, batteries, bread, condoms, etc. from a cart in the village square. Although our first impression is that of a raffish womanizer trying to exchange goods for sex with the local women, he eventually decides to risk his life on behalf of Collé’s struggle. It seems that “Le mercenaire” has seen the world as a United Nations soldier and had absorbed a lot of the rhetoric about human rights as well as a more enlightened view of male-female relations. He was also the leader of a soldier’s protest against unequal wages that earned him 5 years in the stockade. Such progressive minded soldiers appear frequently in Sembene’s films and no doubt reflect his own experience in WWII, when he fought to liberate France from German occupation.
Since most of the action takes place in the village square, the film almost has the quality of a stage presentation. Characters arrive and depart from the square almost as if from offstage. In their traditional clothing and almost choreographed motions, they evoke an African version of Kabuki theater. This is no accident since Kabuki and “Moolaadé” both depict highly stratified social structures, where lords and vassals must conform to strict rules.
This is not to say that the film lacks a connection to the crude realities of rural life. As a poet with a camera, Sembene integrates goats, chickens and dogs into the action with both lyricism and wit. After the village elders decide to ban radios, a source of subversive ideas from the outside world, Collé salvages an ancient radio that still works. As she is showing off the radio to her anti-circumcision comrades, cockroaches begin to stream out–only to be pecked at by nearby chickens. This image has more power than a Hollywood car chase costing millions. One can imagine the 81 year old Sembene giving instructions to the chicken handlers!
In an excerpt from a forthcoming biography of Sembene titled “Ousmane Sembene: The Life of a Revolutionary Artist” by Samba Gadjigo, we discover that the film-maker has had strong connections with left politics:
In 1947, unemployed in the thick of a war-ravaged colonial economy, Sembene left Dakar in search of a better living and the opportunity to feed his unquenchable thirst for learning. He migrated to France and lived in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles until 1960, the year Senegal was granted independence. As a black African docker who knew how to read and write, he was soon identified by labor union leader Victor Gagnere and enrolled in the Confederation generale des travailleurs (CGT), the largest and most powerful left-wing workers’ union in post-war France. After backbreaking work unloading ships during the day (containers did not exist then), at night and on weekends Sembene enthusiastically attended seminars and workshops on Marxism and joined the French Communist Party in 1950. In 1951, while unloading a ship, Sembene broke his backbone. After a long recovery and unable to sustain the physical effort required by the work of a docker, he was given a post as a switchman and the opportunity to advance from a laborer into a well-rounded intellectual. As his comrade and friend Bernard Worms put it: “He rose to the status of the intellectual aristocracy of the labor movement; he became “un honnete homme.”
Sembene spent most of his free time roaming public libraries, museums, theater halls, and tirelessly attending seminars on Marxism and Communism. He read everything: Marxist ideology, political economics, political science, and works of fiction and history. During those Marseilles years, with the passion and obsession of a new convert, Sembene also participated in the protest movements organized by the French Communist Party against the colonial war in Indochina (1953) and the Korean War (1950-1953). He also openly supported (and later wrote about) the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in its struggle for independence from France, and he vehemently protested against the Rosenberg trial and execution in the United States in 1953. Dreaming of the universal freedom and brotherhood promised by communist ideology, Sembene also worked to educate and liberate the community of mostly illiterate and “apolitical” African workers shipwrecked at the margins of French society.
It was also in the midst of such intense political activism that Sembene discovered other communist artists and writers: Richard Wright, John Roderigo (Dos Passos), Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemingway, Nazim Hikmet. He also came into contact with the works of the Jamaican Communist writer Claude McKay (whose 1929 novel Banjo would influence Sembene’s first novel) and the novels of Jacques Roumain, another Communist writer from Haiti and author of the classic Masters of the Dew (1947). Sembene also became involved with the international Communist youth organization Les Auberges de jeunesses and discovered the Communist theater Le Theatre Rouge.
In an interview with Sembene, Samba Gadjigo asks him:
We have gone through the experience of slavery; we have gone through colonization; now it’s the experience of globalization and neocolonization. Every time, the people of Africa arise every time from their wounds. Ousmane Sembene, where do we get our strength from?
Sembene’s reply is as follows:
I don’t know, I can’t say. But, we must pay a lot of attention to what you have just said. Until now Africa has always risen, but this new century is the most dangerous century, this present phase is the most dangerous one for the continent. Slavery was blessed by the Church, and accepted by the Europeans. You can find it in the Bible, the Koran and even the Talmud. With colonization, it was Europe that divided Africa for its riches. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Europeans got together again several times to carve up Africa. France, Italy, England, Germany divided and shared Africa. Even during slavery each of these countries had their area on the African coast. Now, Europe is in the process of uniting, of regrouping. This same Europe that divided us; that same France who, in 1789, spoke of liberty, of man’s rights, for them, but not for the Africans. They continued to practice slavery and then colonization. Globalization isn’t so. Once again we find ourselves squeezed for our primary riches that Europe wants. We are, one more time, the object of the battles. What is thought nowadays in Africa is even more worrisome. Since 1960, Africans have killed more Africans than a hundred years of slavery and colonization. Now people speak of globalization, and it’s enough to just take our area called “francophone.” Our leaders, I’d say almost all of them, have houses in Europe, ready to retire to Europe as soon as the smallest problem comes up in their country. We are not concerned by globalization, we are not even in tow. The problem is more mental than economic. When Africans cannot exchange between themselves, between neighboring countries, that is a problem right there. They speak about the market constituted by the European Union, about 250,000,000 people. In Africa we are a potential market of more than 900.000.000! The economic laws and laws of physics are the same everywhere, in all cultures, all languages.
“Moolaadé” was shown at this year’s New York Film Festival and is scheduled to open on October 15th at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Cinema Village in NYC. This is a film for the ages.
Full interview with Sembene: http://www.marxmail.org/INTERVIEW_SEMBENE.htm
Full article on Sembene: http://www.marxmail.org/OUSMANE_SEMBENE.htm