Directed by Adama Drabo
Kuni: It’s not about power, but equality in our difference.
Among the Dogon people from the central plateau of Mali, there are legends that speak to an inherent duality that exists in all of nature. They believe that all of space-time can only be held together by a careful balancing, or “twinning,” of opposite forces. For example, the Dogon believe that each person is part male and part female. Whichever side is dominant determines the outward appearance an individual. The perfect balance of gender is thought to only be achieved in the birth of fraternal twins where one is a boy and one is a girl. One of the keys to a harmonious society is equilibrium between the two opposing genders. Famed ethnographer Marcel Griaule wrote that, “In the Dogon system of myth, social life must reflect the working of the universe, and conversely, the world order depends on the proper ordering of society.” Therefore, any imbalance that challenges the gender status quo in Dogon society can be devastating. Such a conflict is at the heart of Taafe Fanga (Skirt Power), a magnificent Malian film that is one of the most fascinating examinations of gender roles in human society ever committed to celluloid.
To many, Skirt Power will be a difficult film to watch and even more difficult to understand. Many African filmmakers, like Ousmane Sembène, tell African stories in the cinema through the use of Western cinematic techniques and structures. As a result, their films often play like they were made by Europeans. But director Adama Drabo veered away from such Western influences and created Skirt Power with the use of African storytelling idioms. As such, it is a distinctly African film made for African audiences. More specifically, it is a film made for West African audiences. The film’s story is fused with attributes of Dogon mythology that would be common knowledge for its intended audience but would be a confusing enigma to those who were unfamiliar with world mythology. But it would be foolish to suggest that such a culturally exclusive film is unimportant. Quite the contrary. Skirt Power could very well be one of the most important African films ever made because it is a perfect snapshot of Dogon culture. I will try to present the film’s story as succinctly as possible in this review. I have rearranged some of the events out of their chronological order so they will make more sense from a Western perspective. I have also added insights into the Dogon people as need be so that the film’s true meaning will have a full impact on those unfamiliar with their culture.
As many stories do, Skirt Power begins with a storyteller. Sitting inside a cramped building filled with people segregated by gender, a griot (a West African poet; storyteller; musician) plays his kora and begins to sing. It isn’t long before a woman walks into the room and sits on the men’s side. Her defiance angers one of the men who try to strike her. But she resists. Inspired by this brave act, the griot tells a tale of a village living in a state of imbalance.
The men are lazy and treat their wives like servants. The women sorrowfully sing, “It's a world made by men, for men/A world full of confusion and suffering for the rest of us/In this world of uncertainty/peace and unity are empty words.” One young woman named Yayémé is beaten by her husband Agro when he is called a “woman’s slave” for bringing home firewood. She angrily storms out of the village to get her own firewood despite the fact that it is dark. The villagers have always been told to not go out after dark because they might see the Andumbulu, a group of malevolent African elf-like spirits with backwards feet who kill anybody that sees them.
As fate would have it, she witnesses the Andumbulu in the midst of a ritual. Before she flees, she manages to steal an Albarga mask (a symbol of unity and harmony) from an Andumbulu woman named Yandju. The next day, she wears the mask and orders the men to abdicate their societal powers over to the women. Believing her to be an Andumbulu, they quickly obey. The turnover of power is represented by the men wearing skirts and the woman wearing pants. The men are suddenly forced to work all day by taking care of the children, cooking, and collecting water while the women relax and drink. This situation leads to some great moments of slapstick that left West African audiences in stitches. But this humor translates for Western audiences as well. After all, you don’t have to be West African to take pleasure in the irony of a situation where the women demand sex from husbands who are so tired from the day’s work that they pretend to be asleep.
But despite their new-found power over the oppressive males, their society remains in a state of imbalance. For harmony to be achieved, both men and women need to work together and be equal. All that has changed in the village is that the women have become the usurpers of power. Caught in the middle of the struggle between the men and the women is Yayémé’s precocious young daughter named Kuni. The lone member of the village who won’t wear the clothing of the opposite sex, Kuni tries to bridge the gap between the two groups. In Dogon culture, girls are not considered women and men not considered men until after they are circumcised. Since Kuni is not yet of age for the ritual, she is still in contact with her twinned spirit. Therefore she is the perfect moderator between the battle of the sexes.
Kuni befriends Yandju who reveals that she needs the mask back from her mother. Yandju reveals that she stole the mask (which represents a proper balance between the sexes) in defiance of the men subjugating the women in her society. Only by restoring the mask of balance can both sides be reconciled. With the help of Yandju and some of the other village children, Kuni tries to convince Yayémé to return the mask. But she refuses. Instead, the village’s men find the mask and return it to Yandju. Almost in response to their actions, at that moment another woman goes into labor, uniting the village together in prayers for a successful delivery. Yandju sacrifices herself and the spirit of the mask for the sake of the newborns, and the woman gives birth to boy and girl twins, representing the new-found harmony of the genders in their village.
It is easy to misinterpret Skirt Power and what it intends to do. It can be misunderstood as advocating the idea that women belong in their place below men, as the village in Skirt Power only really starts to suffer when the women take over the men’s roles. But Drabo has another motive in mind. The film isn’t about one sex dominating the other. Instead, it is about both genders working together for a common goal. One character in the movie speaks, “The purpose of taking power is to make a better world…No nation is built without hard work – but it can’t be done by excluding men [or women].” And so, Skirt Power remains a film that gives a unique glance into the inner workings of a fascinating (and to many, alien) culture. It defines and advocates social harmony and equality between men and women. Many other cultures support the same ideals. But Skirt Power speaks to the specifically Dogon reasoning behind such an ideal. And really, that is the greatest gift of the cinema: the ability to bridge gaps between different peoples through the use of stories. Such stories prove that only by embracing our differences can we achieve a better future.
The editor wishes to thank Dr. Elisabeth Cameron for her invaluable help and insights into Dogon culture.