When the film Moolaadé was introduced at Ebertfest, the woman taking on introduction duties on Roger Ebert's behalf said that she had asked Ebert if there was anything in particular he wanted her to say about the film. "Best film at Cannes in 2004," was his reply, and after seeing the film it's easy to see why.
Moolaadé certainly tackled one of the hardest subjects addressed at Cannes that year -- the controversial issue of female genital mutilation. The film, set in a small African village, opens with four young girls running into a village compound and seeking protection from Coolé, one of the women there. The girls have run away from the "Purification" ceremony -- a brutal ritual in which female priestesses mutilate the genitalia of young girls.
The "cutting," as it is euphemistically called, generally involves cutting away the external female genitalia, and sometimes sewing shut the vaginal opening -- a surgical procedure performed in non-sterile conditions with no anethesia or antibiotics. If a girl is lucky, the procedure will be horribly painful and leave her maimed for life, with future sexual relations with her husband causing tearing and intense pain, and childbirth made more difficult and dangerous. Those who aren't so lucky will die from the procedure, either from loss of blood, shock, or infection. The girls have come to Coolé, the second of a trio of wives who share a compound, for protection, because they know that she refused to have her own daughter cut. Coolé herself lost two babies who died in childbirth because of the damage caused by the cutting, and her surviving daughter only lived because a female doctor was nearby and performed an emergency caesarean section, which has left Coolé with a huge scar from sternum to pelvis. Coolé agrees to protect the girls and, tying a special cord across the doorway of her family compound, invokes "Moolaadé" -- a protection unbreakable so long as the girls stay within the compound. The purification has to happen within a particular timeframe, so as long as the girls are with Coolé under her protection, they cannot be forcibly removed and are safe. The only way Moolaadé can be broken, once invoked, is if Coolé herself utters the word that will break it. The other two wives in her family, Elder and a new, younger wife who is subservient to Coolé, aren't necessarily in agreement with Coolé rocking the boat, but they also know what "cutting" really means and so are not entirely opposed to her stance against it.
Coolé's village is a place where ideas are slow to change, and changing actions even harder. Coolé's actions pit the villagers against each other -- the men are appalled at this show of independence by a woman, and blame it on the radios they have allowed the women to have. The radios, say the elder men of the village, are at fault because they have given the women ideas that go against the social mores of the village. Many of the women, at first, are against what Coolé is doing; after all, they themselves were cut and survived, and no man will wed a woman who has not been purified. Things escalate when two other girls who ran away from purification are found -- they are dead, having thrown themselves into a well rather than be cut by the priestesses.
Meanwhile, the son of the village chief is returning to his village from living and working in Paris, to wed Coolé's daughter (it's not clearly explained if he was somehow not aware that she was not cut prior to this or not). His father, in the wake of Coolé's defiance, condemns the engagement and refuses to go ahead with the marriage. But the son is not the father -- he has been educated abroad, and he is more aware of global views and issues of equality than the village elders who have never seen the world outside their home. He comes bearing gifts from the western world, including more radios and even a television -- at a time when the village men are confiscating all the radios to burn them. The son is horrified at the elders' insistence that the people, and especially the women, should remain ignorant, superstitious, and cut off from the world.
The priestesses are irate at having their power so checked, and descend upon the men en masse to demand that something be done about Coolé. When Coole's husband returns from a trip, his elder brother demands that he take charge of his wayward, irresponsible wife by beating her publicly in the town square until she utters the word that will break Moolaadé and allow the girls to be purified. Coolé's staunch courage in the wake off all this turns the tide of the sentiment of the women in favor of her, and soon the village is caught in the throes of an all-out battle for the future rights of the women and girls who live there.
Moolaadé is a deeply moving film; you cannot help but be inspired by Coole -- and by all African women who have taken a stance against genital mutilation. Moolaadé is a film about courage, survival, and the strength of the human spirit. The courage of the girls who run away, risking the shunning of their parents and their tribe,. the fierce tug-of-war between Coolé and the priestesses over the welfare of these four girls, and all future girls in the village, and the powerful ending, all serve to make Moolaadé not only the best film at Cannes in 2004, as Ebert believes, but perhaps one of of the most socially relevant films of the decade.