Toward the end of Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, dozens of young girls gather for a coming-of-age ceremony in their Malian village. An older woman, who boasts 16 years’ experience in the tradition, boils up a large bowl of medicine. She gathers cotton balls, alcohol, and razor blades. She spreads leaves in a circle to ward off witches and ties string around the girls’ necks and torsos to keep evil away. Then, she tells the documentary camera crew to leave.
“I excised all 62 of these girls today,” she announces later, “all by myself.” In Mali, excision—or female genital mutilation—ranges from snipping the hood and tip of the clitoris to complete removal of the outer genitalia followed by the stitching of the vaginal opening. The tradition is performed on 85 percent of the country’s girls in order to prevent unchecked sexuality and infidelity.
Mrs. Goundo doesn’t want her daughter to be one of them. Raised in a Sononke village in Mali, the 22-year-old Goundo was sent to Philadelphia as a teenager to marry a man to whom she’d been betrothed since childhood. “Sometimes I wish my parents hadn’t brought me here,” Goundo says of Philly, which she finds cold and alienating, and where Goundo’s own excision is the subject of medical curiosity. The film follows Goundo’s fight to stay in this place, where, at least, the razor blades do not threaten Goundo’s 2-year-old daughter, Djenabou. As American lawyers, translators, and judges dutifully file paperwork in Goundo’s asylum case, the village warmly welcomes its 62 “noble daughters” back into the fold. Caught in the middle, Goundo remains brave and miserable.
The controversy surrounding the genitalia of Danae Elon’s children is less cut-and-dried. Directed and narrated by Elon, Partly Private follows the New York mom-to-be as she decides whether to remove the foreskin from the penises of her two baby boys. The belabored process encompasses two pregnancies, a whirlwind circumcision tour of the world, and debates with circumcision activists, entrepreneurs, psychoanalysts—and the boys’ circumcised father, Philip. Elon has conceded that her intention is “to portray everyone taking sides on this issue as equally crazy.” And so, Elon seeks advice concerning the fate of her sons’ penises from a busful of Sex and the City fan girls, a deranged anti-circumcision cowboy named Buster, and an ancient Israeli woman who thinks the hill behind her house was built of discarded foreskin. Even the film’s most levelheaded circumcision advocates rely on aesthetics—Philip insists that his first son’s penis must look like his own, and that his second son’s penis look like his brother’s. The procedure’s most fervent opponents, meanwhile, wield signs with such middling messages as circumcision is unnecessary.
But Elon does not remain behind the camera as she rolls out her crazies. She inserts herself into each cultural perspective and foreskin product, nodding along as if these things had anything to do with her kids’ dicks, then whining to Philip that he doesn’t make an attempt to understand “what I’ve discovered—what I’ve seen.” The film’s rare points of emotional clarity—as when a freshly circumcised Turkish boy provides the camera a weak thumbs-up that fades deliberately to a thumbs-down—have nothing to do with Elon’s personal journey. Throughout, these circumcision curiosities are disingenuously woven into Elon’s own child-rearing—and desire to make a film about her family.
At the film’s end, Elon asks which of her two sons will come to resent her more—the one whose foreskin status was determined in ignorance, or the one whose foreskin status was determined after, she claims, she “knew it all.” With both boys’ penises subjected to their mother’s pet project, I’m betting both will have a pretty good argument.
Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter
At 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 17, at AFI Silver Theatre; also on Saturday, June 20, at 12:30 p.m. at Discovery HD Theater
At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, at AFI Silver Theatre; also on Saturday, June 20, at 1:15 p.m. at Round House Theatre.