Throughout the four decades of his great career–which is the same thing as saying, throughout the history of filmmaking in sub-Saharan Africa–Ousmane Sembene has switched back and forth between urban and rural settings, historic and contemporary subjects, as if striving to encapsulate the whole of his continent’s experience. Most recently, in Faat Kiné, he dramatized the entrepreneurial and familial struggles of a Dakar woman, who had worked her way up into the middle class by running a gas station. His new film, Moolaadé, focuses instead on a village far from any paved roads, where women still draw water from a well and news travels by drum. From your first view of the dried-mud architecture–the round granaries set on foundations of round stones, the mosque with its stringy towers sticking up like an anthill’s peaks–you understand you’re in a place bound by tradition. Yet this place is also permeable to modernity, which enters the movie as soon as you do.
The first images in Moolaadé show the arrival of a peddler known as Mercenaire (Dominique T. Zeïda), who wheels into the village a bicycle cart laden with store-made clothes, bakery bread, bright-colored plastic housewares and the most prized item of all: alkaline batteries.
Another intrusion of modernity follows immediately, even as Mercenaire sets out his wares. Into one of the village’s compounds dash four skinny little girls dressed in nothing but blue shorts. Weeping and gasping, they beg for sanctuary from Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), who is the second of this household’s three wives. The children understand that she alone might take pity on them, now that they have run away from the rite their elders call “purification.” The girls have a more basic name for it: “getting cut.”
I see, though, that my summary has oversimplified the situation–an easy error to make, under the spell of Sembene’s effortless storytelling. Despite what I just said about modernity, these small girls do not yet think in terms of rejecting tradition. What they’re refusing is pain. As for the oval-faced, heavy-lidded Collé, whose forceful movements contrast strikingly with her bird-in-flight smile: Although she once set a bad example about genital cutting, years ago, she has never encouraged anyone to rebel. If she now provides the girls with ritual protection–moolaadé–it’s mostly because she can’t bear to turn away frightened children. She is acting for the moment on gut instinct. (I mean that literally; Sembene will show you the scars on her belly.) It takes the rest of the film–a two-hour stand-off between Collé and the girls on one side, the village elders and wise women on the other–to turn impromptu defiance into a conscious break with the past.
The siege at Collé’s compound is only the latest such confrontation that Sembene has imagined. In films as different as Black Girl, Ceddo, Guelwaar and The Camp at Thiaroyé, he has locked his conflicting characters into situations with no apparent exit. It’s his favorite plot device; and so one measure of his skill as a filmmaker is the fact that nobody walks out of his movies complaining of claustrophobia. His audiences speak instead of vivid performers, textured settings, cadenced actions, the pulse of daily life.
Moolaadé finds the octogenarian Sembene near the top of his form. The film plays like a musical composition, in relaxed tempo, made up in large part of ceremonious greetings, domestic chores, communal debates and marketplace transactions. Even while the villagers struggle in deadly earnest with their traditions, they keep on milling the grain, pumping the water, teaching an off-camera group of boys to chant the Koran. Interrupting this normal flow, though, are sudden narrative accents: an outburst of violence, or the comic spectacle of someone stepping awkwardly over the ritual barrier to Collé’s compound. Through his rhythms, Sembene makes these moments seem as natural, as open to the sky, as the village itself–although there’s finally not much that’s naturalistic about them. Charmer, pedagogue and symbol-maker, Sembene pays attention to such quotidian details not just for their own sake but to build up images, which can be as telling, and improbable, as the burning radios he heaps up in Moolaadé, leaving them squawking to different stations as they smolder next to the mosque.