Sunday, September 17, 2006

12. Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene's "Moolaade" (2004): Africa ought to be proud of this film!

Ousmane Sembene is a colossus among African filmmakers. He is what Kurosawa and Ray are to Asia. At 82, this man is making films on women's problems, on colonialism, on human rights without losing sight of African culture.

Moolaade deals with rebellion by African women against female circumcision, a tradition upheld by elders, Muslim and animist, in a swathe of countries across Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. Interestingly, the film is an uprising within the social traditions that allow the husband full powers over his wives and acceptance of other social codes to whip his wife in public into submission. How many women (and feminist) directors who preach about female emancipation would have dared to make a film on this subject in Africa? The subject could cause riots in countries such as Egypt. Sembene is more feminist than women and I admire this veteran for this and other films he has made. He graphically shows how women are deprived of sexual pleasures through this practice and how thousands die during the crude operation.

Moolaade deals with other aspects of Africa as well. It comments on the adherence to traditional values that are good--six women get protection through a code word and piece of cloth tied in front of the entrance to the house. It comments on materialism (including a bread vendor with a good heart for the oppressed who is called a "mercenary" by the women who claim to know the meaning of the word) that pervades pristine African villages (the return of a native from Europe and the increasing dependence on radios for entertainment and information).

Sembene's cinema is not stylish--its style stems from its simplicity and its humane values. Sembene's films allow non-Africans to get inside the world of the real Africa far removed from the world of the Mandelas, constant hunger and the epidemic of AIDS that the media underlines as Africa today. Sembene's film is not history, it is Africa today. The performances are as close to reality as you could get.

At the end of the film shown at the 2005 Dubai Film Festival, I could not but marvel at a man concerned not at making great cinema for arts' sake but using it creatively to improve the human condition of a slice of humanity the world (and the media) prefers to ignore. How many of us worry about the conditions of life in Africa, let alone the social problems of women in Africa? Here is a director nudging us to think on those lines. Through this film, a subject that most Muslims prefer not to discuss is brought to the screen.


Bill said...

I'm aware that this is an old post, but I just came across it. Great work.

You make the aside that Sembene's work isn't stylish and while it's clear you see past this, I think it feeds into a misconception of sorts.

I gather you're not from the US--you saw this in Dubai, you say--but I am. My wife and I saw the film, however, during a year we lived in Dakar, in 2006. One of the things that struck us in Dakar, by no means an original observation, was how thick social relationships were between people, compared to the US, where really people are very separated from each other and are quite lonely.

Understanding this helps me understand Sembene's films. Maybe this isn't a point that needs to be made to someone from a healthier society, but in the US directors are often praised for complex technique above all else. Sembene spends as much time fleshing out the social relationships of the people in his films as a Scorcese does setting up complex dolly shots. To me, the social relationships in Sembene make for a much more satisfying cinema.

Jugu Abraham said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your comment on my post. Yes, I am an Indian citizen, who has visited Dakar just once on official work.

Sembene's cinema is one that I respect. His style is like Satyajit Ray's cinema that hooks you by the content and the director's perspective. I do not believe "Moolaade" can be compared with say a Kubrick film in terms of style but then no work of Kubrick can match the audacity of "Moolaade's" content. I have lived in a Muslim country for over 5 years and found few Muslim men or women who would openly discuss the subject of female circumcision.

I agree with you that for Sembene and most African and Asian filmmakers social values and concerns matter a lot. Yet there are US filmmakers whom I admire who are concerned with social relationships--some works of directors Abraham Polonsky, John Sayles, Sidney Pollack and Paul Mazursky come to my mind. But when Polonsky tried to do a Sembene in the US, he was branded a Communist! I guess he was a "Sembene" in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For Sembene in his 80's to make this film is just awesome. What a swansong for a great director.