CHAMPAIGN – Portraying an African woman who opposes female genital mutilation was difficult for actress Fatoumata Coulibaly, a practicing Muslim who herself underwent the excision when she was a young girl.
One of the hardest scenes for her in "Moolaade," shown Thursday at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, was the partial nude scene in which her character, Colle, has sex with her husband.
"African women are very modest. We don't want to uncover ourselves, but (director Ousmane Sembene) tried to explain to me I was doing it for future generations," Coulibaly said. In the scene, she also depicted how painful sexual intercourse is for women who have had their clitoris excised as part of the "purification" ceremony.
"Although millions of women suffer from it, they do not talk about it because it has not entered public discourse," the actress said. "It was a very, very brief scene, but it was dense with meaning and significance."
In "Moolaade," Ebert's favorite film at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, four young girls escape a "purification" ceremony in their village and run to Colle's compound to seek her protection, or "moolaade." Colle had refused to allow her own daughter to undergo female circumcision, having seen many girls die as a result of the surgery.
The villagers take sides, and Colle eventually is whipped by her husband. A group of women stand by her at the end and turn against the men in power as well as the female villagers who do the cutting.
The practice has been common in Africa, particularly Muslim areas, even though Islam condemns it, Ebert wrote in his review. "Many girls die after the operation, and during the course of this movie, two will throw themselves down a well," he continued. "But men, who in their wisdom assume control over women's bodies, insist on purification. And because men will marry no woman who has not been cut, the older women insist on it, too; they have daughters who must find husbands."
"Moolaade" was filmed in Burkina Faso, one of the first countries to outlaw female genetic mutilation. "We believe outlawing is not enough because then it goes underground," Coulibaly said. Education is needed too.
After "Moolaade" was shown, Coulibaly went onstage with former actress Marcia McBroom, now a teacher and human rights activist, and Samba Gadjigo, a professor of French at Mount Holyoke College.
Gadjigo, who interpreted the actress's remarks, made a film on the making of "Moolaade" and is a leading scholar on African cinema and on Sembene, often called the father of African cinema.
Coulibaly said Sembene was not easy to work with; he reminded her of her father, who also was a colonial soldier under French rule.
"They are tyrants. All the time we worked together, he would not have eye contact with me. All the time I was with him, he did not see me. All he saw was the film being made. Sometimes he yelled at me or hit me on the back. But it was the best school I could hope for, and I would do it again tomorrow."
Gadjigo said "Moolaade" has been seen in major cities in the United States and Europe but has had only three showings in Africa. Sembene has said that the U.S. and Europe are his market, but Africa is his public, according to the scholar.
Sembene's films are not reaching Africa for many reasons, Gadjigo said, one being that in Senegal, movie theaters are being turned into shopping malls. And African cinema is not encouraged because it tends to be critical of government policies, he said. He also said blockbuster American movies are less expensive to distribute in Africa.
"We see more African films here in the United States than anywhere else in the world," Gadjigo said. "I came to the United States in 1962, and the first time I saw one of Ousmane's films was at the University of Illinois."