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Friday, April 19

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Airbags

5 of 5 stars
Directed by Sembene Ousmane.
Starring Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maimouna Hélne Diarra, Salimata Traoré and Dominique Zeda.

Very rarely do I consider a film to be important, but Senegalese director Sembene Ousmane's newest feature, Moolaadé, is just that. Much has been made of the film's subject: female genital mutilation in the African Union. More than two-thirds of its 51 member states still practice female genital mutilation and upwards of 90 percent of women in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Northern Sudan have been "circumcised," so the need to end the practice is a very serious matter. It is surprising, then, that Sembene's treatment of this appalling subject is utterly charming, even hilarious at times.

The film's subject results in a handful of very difficult scenes, but Sembene does not paint the argument over female circumcision between the factions of the village of Djerisso in black and white. On the contrary, this vibrantly colorful masterpiece only features people clinging to tradition and others who recognize that this tradition is hurting -- even killing -- their daughters. While some of the characters act violently out of fear, none are depicted as outright evil. Sembene never forgets -- and never lets his audience forget -- that this tiny village is not filled with strangers, but a relatively small, tight-knit group that has lived and struggled together for their whole lives. The advocates of the tradition are simply fighting to preserve their culture the only way they have ever known it.

Moolaadé opens with four young girls running to Collé Ardo's home wearing the blue loincloths of the "purification" ceremony. The girls have turned to Mother Collé, the second wife of Ciré, who is away with a delegation of some sort, because Collé had refused to allow her own teenage daughter to be cut. With her husband away, and the first wife supporting her decision, she takes the girls into her home and offers them moolaadé, or protection, a spell that can only be broken by the one offering the moolaadé.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an easy subject to condemn for Americans. We call it dangerous and say it serves no logical purpose whatsoever, and these opinions are undeniably true. But because FGM has been outlawed here for some time, Americans condescendingly call places that practice it "backward" (The Hollywood Reporter). They are conveniently ignoring that, in America, clitoridectomies were prescribed as a treatment for "psychological disorders" such as lesbianism or an overzealous fondness for masturbation as recently as the mid-1940s, albeit infrequently, and American doctors still occasionally advocate reductions for unusually large clitorises -- something no man would ever recommend doing to his son's enormous cock. Another thing lost on Americans is that very nearly the same arguments against female genital mutilation can be made against male circumcision, which is still relatively common in America (roughly 60 percent, down from 85 percent in the 70s), despite a significantly lower incidence in Britain (roughly 21 percent) and most other Western countries.

Since FGM is outlawed in America, though, the primary message of Moolaadé -- that FGM should be stopped -- is not quite as relevant here. Although increased public awareness in Western countries can pressure nations that still practice this abomination to end it, what remains vitally important regardless of the country you live in is Moolaadé's underlying message about control. Although the girls have run from their own desire not to be "cut," the men assume that Collé has put them up to it -- influenced, of course, by the radios piping in poison from the city. Appalled by the idea that their sons might marry a bilakoro (an uncircumcised woman), the men of the city, with the support of the Salindanas (the women who perform the circumcision rites), confiscate all the radios in the town and pile them in front of the village mosque, eventually lighting them on fire as the film builds to its exhilarating climax. Asked why the men have taken the radios, a woman named Sanata explains, "Our men want to lock up our minds."

And the same thing can be said of countries where the media is allowed to exist, but only in such emasculated forms as Hollywood packs our multiplexes with, or in such a castrated form that the "truth" it disseminates is only a perversion.

Moolaadé is playing at the Music Box, weekdays at 5pm and 9:40pm and Saturday and Sunday at 11:30am, 2pm, 5:20pm and 9:30pm. A terrific interview with Sembene can be found here.

Given the widespread anti-Islamic sentiment in America these days, I find it important to note that while Moolaadé is set in a tiny Muslim village (presumably, but not necessarily, in Senegal, where the practice is illegal), the practice is not exclusively Muslim. FGM occurs in predominantly Christian African countries as well, such as Ethiopia and Kenya. So, if the jackass who audibly scoffed at the line "Allah is great" during the screening I attended is reading this: f$ck off.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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