Criterion Prediction #266: Moolaadé, by Alexander Miller
Director: Ousmene Sembène
Cast: Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maimouna Hélène Diarra, Salimata Traoré, Dominique Zeïda
Synopsis: Four girls seek refuge with Collé, an outspoken woman in their Senegalese village, as they escape their purification ceremonies, a practice that involves genital cutting/mutilation. Collé stands in stalwart opposition to the purification places the girls under the protective barrier spell of a moolaade, forbidding anyone who wants to inflict harm from crossing into the sanctuary. This stirs up a wave of controversy among the villagers and the elders as purification has been a long-standing tradition, but Collé’s divisive gesture has put people at odds, and ensuing tensions boil.
Critique: In what might be Sembène’s finest efforts, Moolaadé also feels like one of his most important. Naturally, the subject bears exploration as a still prescient and global dilemma that, despite more visibility, continues to be practiced worldwide. Sembène’s film can be read as a collective call to action; after all, the very making and releasing of Moolaadé is indeed a call to action. But, when the film’s gentle yet bold story comes to the fore, you get the feeling that this simply revolves around four girls who are terrified by the act of circumcision, and the woman, Collé, who is their sovereign guardian. It’s deliberately plain-spoken and, in the best tradition, Sembène lets the material speak for itself.
Sembène’s cinema has often explored African traditions, French colonialism, and the lingering (and ongoing) effects of both and how they bump off one another. And Moolaadé is a logical extension of his thematic interests, and his final feature plays with contextual depth at a level exceeding even his best work. Collé (played with sturdy authority by Fatoumata Coulibaly) stands with dignified poise against the purification ceremony, the elders, and her husband using the protective moolaade spell to ward away interlopers. And in doing that, we get the feeling, Colle is a bit more savvy and a shade less superstitious than the others in her community. Whether or not she believes that she’s evoking magic is beside the point, but as long as it’s keeping the girls safe from genital mutilation, it’s ok to deceive your neighbors and mock the almighty – especially when their combined forces are the threat in question.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Moolaadé checks practically all the boxes for a Criterion release; a thread of the directors work already featured in the collection (Black Girl, Mandabi), an absence of the film anywhere else, a relevant social/political narrative, and a contemporary climate that begets a wider breadth of representation.