Moolaade is the 12th feature by Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembene, now in his early 80s and considered the presiding master of post-colonial African film. As with his previous films, he casts an ambivalent eye toward the society that produced him, mixing satire with melodrama, drawing the viewer into a strange world peopled by all-too-familiar types.

In a small village in Burkino Faso, four preadolescent girls are to undergo a ritual “purification” (which involves genital mutilation) but escape from their keepers. They take refuge with a local woman named Colle, who has a reputation as a challenger of the old tradition, having refused to let her daughter be “purified” years earlier. Colle offers the four girls moolaade, a form of protection that tradition must honor. By putting a simple rope across the entrance of the small enclosed yard in front of the house she shares with a bossy older sister, she proclaims moolaade in effect. The keepers of the tradition are determined to recapture the young girls, but are fearful of the force inherent in Colle’s resistance.

Sembene’s touch can be surprisingly light, and his concerns are always humane; although there’s an anger here at the crimes committed in the name of tradition, there’s also an appreciation of the simplicities of daily village life — which makes it all the more shocking when those arrayed against Colle turn murderous. One feels that this small society is so closely knit that they wouldn’t go so far as to intentionally harm one of their own, but the anger that Colle provokes is primal and deadly. Her affront to both the male village elders and the women who are in charge of the “purification” process unleashes a rage they can’t control, and her defiance has consequences that affect relatively innocent bystanders.

Sembene has taken a subject most people would rather not think about and created a powerful drama with some shattering emotional moments and, against great odds, an uplifting ending. Colle, beautifully played by Fatoumata Coulibaly, is an innately progressive heroine, embodying the power of intransigence in the face of ignorance and fear.


In Jula with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Feb. 25 and 26; and 4 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 27. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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