A village in the countryside of Senegal. Colle Gallo Ardo Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly) gives protection (mooladé) to four young girls who have fled from the village to escape from excision. Colle was circumcised herself and knows the horror only too well. The girls came to her because they knew that she had not allowed her daughter to be mutilated. Her defiant gesture ignites a revolution in the village, where a struggle between tradition and freedom gains momentum and reaches a cathartic resolution.

Ousmane Sembene, the father of African cinema, composed in Moolaadé a moving homage to the unsung heroes of the world, whose everyday fights are the ones that really have an impact on their milieu. The film is also a sincere tribute to women and their courage to fight back against male subjugation.

Sembene was born in 1923 in Ziguinchor, sourthern Senegal and made a living as a labourer (both in Africa and Marseilles) before becoming a writer and then a film-maker. His first novel, The Black Docker, was published in 1956. He turned to cinema in 1962 when he made his first film, Borom Sarret. Sembene says that the illiteracy problem in Africa was the main reason that he took to the camera, so that he could reach out for a bigger audience.

In the context of a continent wounded by slavery and rampant colonialism, it’s not hard to gauge the importance of Sembene’s pioneering work for African audiences, who for a long time saw their land being represented in terms of colonialist clichés such as banana boats and coconut trees. For that reason, like the characters in his films, his position as a political artist makes him into a hero as well.

Mooladé is part of an incomplete trilogy, which started with Faat-Kine (2000) and will be completed with his next project, where he focuses on heroic deeds in daily life, the anti-thesis of the Western idea of glorified individualism that is attached to the hero myth. It’s also a rarity to see a male director take such a feminist stance in the way Sembene does in Mooladé.

Using a style that is similar to the poetic realism of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Satyajit Ray, Mooladé is infused with Sembene’s belief in communal life and his love for his homeland. Despite the seeming seriousness of the subject, the film is also rich with whimsical humour. The village is a symbol of green Africa, a time capsule that nonetheless is not immune to the influences of the outside and ‘modern’ world. There are two elements in the film that signify this – one is the radio, loved by the women in the village, and which is banned after being deemed the root of Colle’s rebelliousness. The other is the son of the village elderly who lives in Paris and comes back home to be presented with his future wife.

Mooladé is according to Sembene his most African film – the actors speak Senegalese dialects and the director insisted in post-producing the film in Morocco. But its resonance is universal. It’s a film about how traditions can become irrational and outdated. This is a film that the late feminist Andrea Dworkin would love to have seen, as the sex scene between Colle and her husband is literally depicted as rape (Dworkin used rape as metaphor of women’s oppression). Fatoumata Coulibaly is one of the most lingering screen presences I have seen in a long time and her charisma is the same size as her character’s heart. As a film that has the potential to move beyond the art house circuit, hopefully it will bring Sembene and other African directors to wider exposure. The West needs to see more of African cinema and the oxygen it can blow into our increasingly stuffy, joyless cinema.