An important aspect of global interaction between cultures is that there is, whenever possible, a quid pro quo approach to the exchange. Even if this has not been the case in the economic field oftentimes, at least there is succour in the fact that in many nations different cultures co-exist in almost a peaceful manner, for instance, Malaysia.
But when this trade-off fails, the consequences are disastrous. The reasons for this nonsuccess are multifold but there is one that has always made me scratch my head in total amazement, or should I write, shock: that of human rights and how we view them.
I don't think I am alone in thinking that what happened in Guantanamo during the Bush years was an insult to our human integrity. And the fact that the Obama administration has shown no willingness whatsoever to prosecute those responsible for such cruel acts, is the proverbial salt being rubbed in our collective wound. When in the UK the Metropolitan Police were found guilty of assaulting 'The Big Issue' vendor Ian Tomlinson last April, and causing his death, again the phrase 'human rights' was bandied around.
Why, then, the tepid attitude to female genital mutilation? How come we still refer to it as a 'cultural difference? Where is our outrage to this barbaric practice?
Luckily, we have film-makers like the late Ousmane Sembene to put the record straight. In what became the coda of his excellent body of work, 'Moolaadé', the veteran Senegalese director addressed the issue of FGM and how it affected women. When Collé Gallo Ardo Sy agrees to help a group of four-to-nine-year-olds escape their circumcision ritual and gives them protection (Moolaadé), she sets a series of events in motion, the outcome of which she cannot fathom. But then, Collé is in a better position than many of her co-villagers to assess the damage that will be done to these children. She herself went through the painful process many years ago and she still bears both the physical and mental scars. As a consequence she refuses to have her own daughter circumcised when her time comes, which causes yet more friction between her and the elders. Now, Collé is determined to stick up for these girls and shows her bravery by putting a coloured rope across the entrance to her hut. This is the sign for the Moolaadé and can only be revoked by Collé herself.
In this movie Sembene cleverly uses the analogy of this small village in Burkina Fasso to conduct an X-ray of Africa itself and how practices that have come to be accepted without being properly analysed or discussed are at odds with our modern view of the world. It also helps that his approach is neither gratuitous nor visually violent. Instead we learn of two girls who drown in a nearby river when told they have to go through the ritual. We are shown briefly the small knife used for the circumcisions, we hear off-screen cries. Rather than showing actual gore, Sembene lets us imagine what it's like for girls to go through such criminal procedure. But that his work is thorough and deep there is no doubt.
For starters there's Collé's husband. Although he has more than one wife as it is the custom, he allows them all to have a greater degree of independence than that granted to other spouses. When the elders' council meets to reach an agreement on what to do about Collé, her husband is invited, but he is talked to, rather than consulted. The message is clear, sort out your wife, or deal with the consequences.
Also, the pace of the movie is not as fast as most Western flicks. We are let in on the daily life of a village in Africa and the contrast between how this continent is seen by the first world and by an African film-maker is very stark. No condescension or patronising attitude, Sembene just lets the camera roll. We see women listening to their radios with such fervour that it reminded me of a similar scenario in late 80s Cuba when at 11am most people would be glued to their transistors listening to the famous soap 'El Derecho de Nacer' (The Right to Be Born) on the Cuban-state-censored, Miami-based Radio Marti. We become first-hand witnesses to the banter in which Mercenaire, a travelling trader reputed to be a ladies' man, and the village women indulge. We take front row seats at the ceremony celebrating the arrival from Paris of the son of one of the elders'.
But under this veneer of placidity we encounter a world fraught with tension. And the consequences of this conflict are tragic. Although I was not totally convinced by the ending - thought it a bit over the top -, it did show African women in a different category from the one in which they are usually put. Rather than accepting the elders' decree, Collé rallies a group of women and together they march down to a council meeting to demand that the practice of female genital mutilation stop at once.
According to the World Health Organisation, one of the bodies whose website I checked during my preparations to present the documentary 'Until the Violence Stops' a couple of years ago, FGM 'includes procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons.' According to the Human Rights Act 1998, under its 'Right to Life' article, 'Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.'
With 'Moolaadé' Ousmane Sembene seriously questions the validity of ancient traditions in today's Africa and places the sacrosanct right to uphold human life above so-called 'cultural differences'. I strongly recommend this film.
Note: I'm sorry that the trailer has Spanish subtitles, I could not find a better one on youtube. Thanks.
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 8th November at 10am (GMT)