Perhaps because of the very serious circumstances that Ebert has been facing this year, many of the movies and panels at Ebertfest addressed nothing short of the human condition. Not solitude, but loneliness, the sort that often lands hardest when borne in a crowd, amongst your tribe, even. In director Joey Lauren Adam's Come Early Morning, which screened Friday afternoon, contractor and heavy drinker Lucy Fowler experiences a profound isolation square in her hometown amongst her family, her roommate, and her drinking mates. And in the Sengalese Moolaadé, the tribe is comprised of two wives, one husband and an entire Muslim village against whom the only boundary wife and mother Collé Gallo Ardo Sy can erect is a spindly red rope and a curse. Yes, a curse. A moolaadé, to be exact.
Alternatively cackling and sorrowful, Collé has already been deemed crazy by the villagers who don't know what to make of her unbroken spirit. When she provides sanctuary to the girl children who flock to her for protection from "purification," or female circumsision, a full-on uproar ensues. Like all the women in her village, she has undergone circumcision. She has also lost two daughters to the practice which, mandated by her religion, not only renders sex and childbirth tortuous but is life-threatening. The resulting battle first places Collé alone against her entire community. Women come together, men are stood up to. Lives are taken. Children are defended. And traditions are broken not through disrespect and dissolution but through a contagious empathy experienced by men and women who can no longer abide by rituals that uphold history over humanity.
Before the film, Chaz announced that Roger had pronounced it the best offering at 2004 Cannes. Indeed, here's a sentence I never thought I would have the opportunity to write: This film about female circumcision is fantastically uplifting. Like Sapphire's novel Push>, it launches from such a dark place that every ray of light is felt keenly. You soon understand how uncrazy Collé is when she grins broadly over small details like sunshine falling across her face, when she dances loose-limbed to her beloved radio (the only one that the men do not manage to confiscate). A little light shines that much brighter in the darkness.
Abe Lincoln once described Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, as "the little lady responsible for the big war." But can a film be prescriptive in addition to merely descriptive in the same way, especially in this day and age? If anyone can do it, it's Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, who abandoned a successful writing career to direct films, which he believed could effect greater social change. Forty years later, he may be widely touted as the first African director to achieve international prominence but his films still are rarely viewed in his home country, which limits mass media to suppress the very changes he courts (reflected in the film by those confiscated radios). Africans are oft-discussed but still rarely heard from in a moment where their struggles defines those of the world's.
I'm sorry to report that even here at Ebertfest some of those dynamics were reiterated. Fatoumata Coulibaly, who portrays Collé, traveled all the way here from Senegal but still barely inserted a word in edgewise on the panel following the screening. Decked out in spiky braids, great swaths of brightly patterned greens, and a smile as broad as her characters', she spoke a beautifully inflected French translated by African cinema scholar Samba Gadjigo.
Of working with director Sambene, she said, "The experience with him was not very easy. All the soldiers are not easy people...in their work they are tyrants. No eye contact with me. Sometimes he hit me on the back. But it was the best school I could have attended and I would do it again."
Most of the film's violence — the murders, the circumcisions — were merely intimated rather than photographed, which rendered a scene in which Collé is publicly flogged that much more powerful. As the other woman moaned in rhythm with the whips, the audience breathed in unison as well. But, Coulibaly reported that even harder to shoot was a sex scene with her husband that's so painful that she weeps all throughout. "Usually in Africa women are very modest. Our bodies are covered at all times. But I am a victim of circumcision and I have been been fighting it for 17 years so I offered my body as a sacrifice. As a public figure I had to do it and so I did it."
That was almost entirely all that Coulibaly managed to utter, as a discourse about Marxism and enertainment followed that was apparently too compelling for anyone to remember translate for her. But though I could listen to her all day, it was enough.
I sat there (as did many others) with tears streaming down my face. Because women even now live in a world where their right to pleasure is cut away from them and is replaced by unfathomable pain. Because such basic battles must be waged while in other places we women and men disavow the persistent need for grass-roots organization, feminism, humanism. Because we live in a society flooded by images compounding our dissociation from ourselves and our humanity when the same medium could be used to wake us instead. And because sometimes filmmakers like Coulibaly and Sambene still can remind us that none of this has to be.