Uplifting Film; Horrifying Subject

OK, bear with me, because what you're about to read may not make any logical sense.

Opening at the Loft Cinema this weekend is Moolaadé, a moving and uplifting film about six girls who escape from a female circumcision ceremony in an African village.

Yes, that's right: According to every account I've been able to dig up, Moolaadé is an uplifting film about what's often referred to as genital mutilation. It opens on Friday, Feb. 4, but it will be shown as part of the Loft's semi-regular Sunday Brunch Screening series on Feb. 6. Doors open at 11 a.m., and the movie starts at noon, with a panel discussion following the film. It is being presented in conjunction with the Co-Existence project.

The film, by renowned African filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, has received heaps of accolades since it debuted at film festivals last year--including the award for Best Foreign Language Movie from the National Society of Film Critics. The plot: It's time for some young girls in a Senegalese village to get "purified," which is a nice way of saying that it's time for them to have parts of their genitals removed--a common practice in many countries--so they can't feel anything during sex. Colle, a strong woman with a powerful husband, decides to protect some of these girls by invoking a protective spirit, moolaadé.

Let's look at what some of the nation's leading critics have to say. Let's go first to the national "paper of record," The New York Times, and critic A.O. Scott: "Moolaadé tells a satisfying, accessible story, complete with detestable villains, brave heroes, suspense, intrigue and a finale that will bring tears of amazement to your eyes." Wow. Now, onto the nation's most renowned alternative newsweekly, The Village Voice, and critic J. Hoberman: "Moolaadé isn't just positive; it's positively feel-good." And finally, let's move to the most famous critic of them all, Roger Ebert: "It makes a powerful statement and at the same time contains humor, charm and astonishing visual beauty."

Peggy Johnson, the Tucson Cinema Foundation's executive director, as well as the moderator of the Sunday panel, tells me: "The film is presented in such a human and uplifting kind of way. It's just a phenomenal product. It's revolutionary, visionary and beautiful."

Such praise from such well-respected folks is beyond reproach, so that begs the question: How in the world can a film on genital mutilation be so "satisfying" and "positively feel-good," a movie that's "uplifting" with "humor"?

Beretta E. Smith-Shomade helps provide some perspective on this. An assistant professor of media arts at the UA, she'll be on the Sunday panel along with Ana Ortiz and Leslye Obiora, a UA law professor who has been involved in spreading the word about this horrible practice.

"(The film) allows it to be both problematic and something people really have some passion about," she says, explaining that in the culture being shown, female circumcision is something that's part of life. In other words, it's about perspective; she said that, for example, in other cultures, people may look at a face-lift as self-mutilation, whereas we do not. Smith-Shomade goes on: "(The film) is light, but it's a serious topic. It's able to balance seriousness with the joy of living, the joy of life."

Johnson provides yet more perspective. "It's dealing with a really difficult subject matter in a way that celebrates the strength and beauty of women, and their ability to be strong in the face of daunting opposition, even from women," Johnson said, pointing out that both women and men promote the practice of genital mutilation, because that's the tradition.

Smith-Shomade says that she hopes people take several things from the film. For one thing, she hopes it will turn people on to the amazing work of 81-year-old Ousmane Sembene, and encourage them to see some more of his films; she also hopes it forces viewers to look at "some of the practices in our culture, and how to address them more pragmatically."

Johnson says she hopes people will learn more about the terrible practice of genital mutilation.

"To impose our values on others is one thing. It's bad," she notes. "But it's good that other countries are starting to present this as something that needs to be discounted. ... Awareness is everything. If you can raise the awareness of the issue, (that's great). The nice thing about what we're doing is that our audiences care about what's going on in the world."

Admission to the Sunday brunch screening is $7.50 for Tucson Cinema Foundation members and $10 for nonmembers. The Loft Cinema is located at 3233 E. Speedway Blvd. For more information, call 795-7777 or 322-5638. If you can't make it to the brunch but want to see the film, call 795-7777 for showtimes.

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