Dir:Ousmane Sembene. Senegal-Fr. 2004. 123mins

Best intentions donot always make best films, and though there is no doubt about the relevance ofan issue as painful as female genital mutilation in Africa, Ousmane Sembene'streatment looks too much like an over-extended politically-correct tract thatwill not go far beyond the strict confines of ethnographic societies.

Sembene,the dean of African cinema, lavishly piles up local colour, but in long, drystretches, all through the first hour, his picture looks more like a touristpageant than the social protest pamphlet it develops into later, and afterbuilding up to a satisfactory climax, it fails to keep up the intensity all theway to the end.

Hisname and reputation may well start the film on the right path with initialbookings in festivals and arthouses but, short of taking it back for severetreatment on the editing table, it is very unlikely to go further. The filmplayed in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.

Itis 'purification' time - as the female circumcision ceremony is referred to bythe Islamic fundamentalist elders of an African village - when a woman, Colle,herself circumcised in her youth, raises the flag of revolt against thebarbarous custom and when four pubescent girls, terrified by the imminentritual, appeal to her she grants them refuge in her home.

Neitherentreaties nor threats will change her mind and even when whipped by herhusband in the public place, to break down her resistance, she will not liftthe traditional protective ban (Moolaade) that prevents the villagers fromentering her house and grabbing the four little fugitives.

Sembene,who claims this ancient inhuman custom is practiced in no less than 38 statesacross the African continent, evidently sees his film as a militant appeal toput an end to these barbarous acts.

Theentire first half of his film is dedicated to the introduction of charactersand establishment of relationships, all of it done at great length withelaborate folkloristic flourish.

Inthe struggle between the righteous Colle at one end, and the village bigots atthe other, the rest of the characters are rather stodgily positioned in variousdegrees of indecisiveness. This is either because they are terrorised bytradition (like most of the other women), do not care about the issue (verymuch like the street merchant whose only concern is making quick profits andchasing girls) or dare not raise their voice against paternal authority (likethe chief's prodigal son who returns from Paris with unexplained stacks ofbanknotes), but is still committed to filial devotion.

Thesecond half, culminating in the powerful whipping scene, shows distinctimprovement, as the position of the characters gradually shifts, and Colle winsthe sympathy and active solidarity of all women and some men, but once that isachieved, the final act is still too pat and too easily wrapped up.

DominiqueGentil's camera makes the best of the colourful background but has not much ofa dramatic role. The set's centrepiece, the village mosque, is a brilliantironic piece, resembling an oversize cactus, more than anything else.

Performancesare mostly self-conscious, with the notable exception of Fatoumata Coulibaly(Colle), whose pain, anger and rebellion come through with flying colours.

Inan African first, explicit sex relations are displayed on screen, but in thiscase for excellent reasons, as they underline how physically agonising (as aresult of the circumcision) and how emotionally demeaning it is for the victimsof this ritual.

Prodco/int'l sales: Filmi Doomirew
Prod des:
Main cast:
FatoumataCoulibaly, Maimouna H Diarra, Salimata Traore Dominique Zeida, Mah Campaore