Some filmmakers make their mark with a searing unity of vision. Film after film, they impose their inner landscapes or, perhaps, their unique way of seeing onto the world. Others begin not with themselves, but with the life before them, noting the silences, the fault lines, the characters and décors shoved out of sight into the wings that one way or another must burst onto the stage. They track down the stories that need be told, and put their talents at the stories’ service. The resulting body of work is less coherent as an object, perhaps, yet far more fascinating as the record of an intellectual and creative journey.
Sarah Maldoror, who passed away from complications due to Covid-19 on April 13, 2020 belongs in this latter category. The first woman to make films about the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, she was possessed of a Promethean spirit – and her journey was literally far-reaching. Born in a small town in south-western France to a Guadeloupean father and a French mother, she trained in Paris, Moscow, and Algiers before going on to make some forty films in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, France, and French Guyana. Just as she was able to see past national borders to the shared human need for dignity and self-determination, so, too, was she able to transcend the divisions between the arts, with her films regularly incorporating elements of poetry, dance, and theatre. Indeed, what drew her to cinema was arguably as much its ability to mobilise the masses as to serve as a Gesamtkünstwerk, a means of bringing all the other arts together.
Maldoror was born on July 19, 1929 and, growing up, felt naturally drawn to poetry and theatre. In the early 1950s, she attended a drama school in Paris and plunged into contemporary discussions surrounding négritude, a literary movement already two decades old that sought to articulate a new, transnational and liberated black consciousness. She traded in her birth name, Sarah Ducados, for her nom de plume, derived from The Songs of Maldoror, a long prose poem much admired by the Surrealists – themselves an important influence on the founders of négritude.1 In 1956, she became one of the founding members of Les Griots, a troupe of African and Afro-Caribbean actors who sought “to end the role of maid” and “to promote black artists and writers.”2 The first plays staged by the group included Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (Huis clos), Aimé Césaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe (La tragédie du roi Cristophe) and Jean Genet’s The Negroes (Les nègres). It was around this time that she met Mario Pinto de Andrade, an Angolan poet and, later, politician, who would become her partner for much of her life.
In the late 1950s, Maldoror was able to travel to Africa for the first time, specifically to Conakry, the capital of Guinea. This trip would become a turning point in her thinking as she came to see cinema, not literature or theater, as the best way to both reach the largely illiterate population and to document the anticolonial struggle. Her trip parallels that undertaken by Ousmane Sembène, then a critically-acclaimed Senegalese writer, around the continent in 1960. Worried that his novels were only reaching the African cultural elite, Sembène also came to see cinema as the more important medium in supporting the liberation movements. In 1961-1962, both Maldoror and Sembène received scholarships that allowed them to study filmmaking in Moscow, under the tutelage of Mark Donskoy.3 Doubtless, this encounter bolstered Maldoror in her purpose.
From the USSR, Maldoror went on to Algiers, where she would be based for over a decade. She actively attended screenings at the city’s cinémathèque and tried her hand as assistant to Gillo Pontecorvo on The Battle of Algiers (1965), to Ahmed Lallem on the short The Women (1966) and to William Klein on the feature-length documentary, The Pan-African Festival of Algiers (1970).4 At the same time, she began working on her own first film, a short titled Monangambéee (1969). Based on “Mateus’ complet,” a story by José Luandino Vieira, the film was set in Angola and took its name from the rallying cry – meaning “white death” – with which Angolan liberation fighters would open village meetings. (It was filmed in Algeria, however, as Angola would not gain its independence for another eight years).
The plot turns on a darkly comical misunderstanding. A prisoner is allowed a brief visit from his wife, who promises to bring him a “complet” – a popular dish. The guard misunderstands this to be some kind of code word: the prisoner is beaten as the officers question him about said “complet.” Their repetition of the word lends and oddly humorous dimension to this most serious of scenes. Only when finally returned, debilitated, to his cell and thrown his wife’s package does the prisoner understand what it was all about. The Portuguese are portrayed unsparingly. “We are fighting savages, we are fighting animals,” one of the prison guards says to the other, while a slow zoom onto a large photograph of Salazar above the commander’s desk points clearly to the ultimate culprit.
The film is formally remarkable in a number of ways. First, aside from the few lines above, dialogue is kept to a minimum – doubtless due to technical limitations. Instead, Maldoror, with typical spunk, was able to approach the Art Ensemble of Chicago after a concert in Paris and to convince them to provide the film with a haunting, avant-garde jazz score as a gesture of solidarity. Second, the lyrical dimension of the film is reinforced by the treatment of the torture scene. What starts as a no-nonsense, frontally-framed depiction of the beating transforms into a solo dance performance suggesting further gruesome trials. The Portuguese artist and filmmaker, Filipa César, justly sees in this use of dance to represent torture an early means of “rehumanis[ing] black bodies.”5
Despite the still recent memory of the debates surrounding the use of torture by the French during the Algerian War and the fact that the film was financed by the National Liberation Front (which had by then set up a one-party government in Algeria), Monangambéee was screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight at the 1971 Cannes film festival.6 At the same time, however, Maldoror broke with the FLN. As Kaelen Wilson-Goldie recounts, the party had agreed to finance her next film, a fiction feature titled Guns for Banta (Des fusils pour Banta), to be filmed on location in Guinea-Bissau with an Algerian crew and local cast.7 The film told the story of Awa, a young woman who is radicalised when fighters come to speak to her village, fights alongside them, and is eventually killed. Maldoror clashed with the Algerian authorities at the editing stage: she wanted to tell the story of the struggle from a feminist point of view. “Wars only work when women take part,” she would say in an interview many years later.8 The Algerian government, instead, “wanted the propaganda tool it had paid for,” as Wilson-Goldie puts it. They seized the film and Maldoror left Algeria.
Her feature-length break-through would come, instead, with Sambizanga (1972), another adaptation of a Vieira text (the novella The Real Life of Domingos Xavier (A Vida verdadeira de Domingos Xavier, which was written in 1961 but not published until the author’s release from prison and the collapse of the Salazar regime in 1974). Although shot in the People’s Republic of Congo, it was set in the period leading up to an armed uprising in the Angolan capital of Luanda against the Portuguese authorities. This time, the film was co-funded by the Congolese government, the French Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation and France’s National Center for Cinema, despite its strong links to The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).9
Once again the narrative centres on a loving couple and follows the man’s arrest, interrogation and, ultimately, death, as his wife continues to search for him. Many scholars and reviewers noted the film’s “feminist slant”: the extended opening scenes which show husband and wife caring equally for their baby, the narrative time it devotes to the wife’s search and the way in which it sits with the grieving women. Against the background of the failed Guns for Banta, however, one senses that Maldoror may be holding herself back. Her Maria is no longer a combatant but rather, a significantly named source of comfort and a witness to the man’s martyrdom.
In its attention to the process of radicalisation within the family unit, the film recalls Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926); in its dual purpose of commemoration and incitement to action, it recalls Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary trilogy. Yet that is where the comparison ends: Maldoror’s film has none of the frenzy of Soviet montage. Although the acting of the non-professional actors is often all too evident, the film’s greatest virtue lies in its leisurely pace, in the way in which it allows viewers who may not have been familiar with Angolan (or Congolese) reality to inhabit that world. The street scenes, filmed with a fluid, roving camera provide priceless observational footage of everyday life that infuses the film with a documentary quality. Meanwhile, the numerous scenes of characters simply sitting or waiting also serve a purpose: the revolution, Maldoror seems to be suggesting, is not always as exciting as in the movies.
Maldoror herself resented the term cinéma révolutionnaire, preferring instead cinéma utilitaire10. For her, the films’ worth lay not in any kind of autonomous, aesthetic value, but in their usefulness as tools for shaking off oppressive regimes and oppressive consciousness. In the second half of her career, she turned back to more “ideological” subjects, producing documentary portraits of artists (Ana Mercedes Hoyos), poets (Aimé Césaire, Leon Damas, Louis Aragon) and musicians (Griots co-founder Toto Bissainthe). Many of these films explicitly pose the question of homelessness and belonging, the difference between African and diasporic identity. Without fail, they avoid easy answers. If they may be said to share any stylistic features, it is their polyphonic quality: each one features a rich tapestry of voices, including bits of poetry and song. They celebrate diversity and plurality.
Other recurring tropes include images shot at the Musée de l’Homme, whose director, the Surrealist writer Michel Leiris, was particularly sympathetic to Maldoror and her cause. These include both whole scenes filmed in the museum’s stock room, as in ‘Et les chiens se taisaient’ d’Aimé Césaire (1978), and brief studies of traditional African objects in Léon G. Damas (1994), which recall Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s condemnation of colonial plunder in the much earlier Statues Also Die (Les statues meurent aussi, 1953). Maldoror also passes in front of the camera during this period, taking active part in some of the more theatrical films or placing herself simply as a figure in the background in others, in ways that recall the work of Maya Deren. Her preoccupation with cinema as a way of constructing and reaffirming a canon of black thought appears justified when, in Léon G. Damas, she polls teenagers on the streets of French Guyana about their favorite poets. The black youngsters are only able to produce the names of white, French authors. “Victor Hugo, La Fontaine, Baudelaire, who else?” one of them innocently asks.
Despite its insistence on growth and evolution, Maldoror’s oeuvre does, in the end, stand as a monolith of sorts: a commemoration of all the brave men and women who gave their lives to the cause of liberating Africa, and a repository of the debates surrounding black art and black consciousness in the latter half of the twentieth century. What Maldoror has to teach us is that there can not be any growth without danger, any seriousness without play, any sense of self without a sense of the Other.
- In an elegant parallel, The Songs of Maldoror were authored by one “Count of Lautréamont” – in reality the pen name of an Uruguyan-born French writer whose birth name, Isidore Lucien Ducasse, carries echoes of Maldoror’s own “Ducados.” In later years, Maldoror would say that she regretted this choice. ↩
- As quoted in: Heinrich Vöckel, “The Loss of Sarah Maldoror – Pioneer of Pan-African Cinema”, Institut Français (April 30, 2020), https://www.institutfrancais.com/en/close-up/the-loss-of-sarah-maldoror-pioneer-of-pan-african-cinema ↩
- Donskoy was a natural choice as he was widely known for his screen adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s autobiographical novels. (This makes particular sense for Sembène, who was eager to adapt his own works for the screen, and who would later translate Gorky into Wolof). (S.M. Chertok, Interview with Ousmane Sembène, Zarubezhnyi ekran: Interviu, (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1973), 70). Ironically, during that year in Moscow, Maldoror and Sembène both served as Donskoy’s assistants on the set of a children’s film about international friendship, Hello, children! (Zdrastvuytie, dieti!). Set at a Soviet summer camp, the film imagined a summit bringing together communist children from around the world. The Soviet children wisely ignore the “provocations” of their international visitors. After some misunderstandings, the children find a shared purpose in their search for a magic herb that will cure Ineko, a Japanese visitor suffering from radiation sickness.[4. See Marina Berthet and Stephan Oriach, “Nouvelles representations du corps et deconstruction de l’imaginaire colonial européen à travers trois films de Sarah Maldoror”, Teoria e cultura 12:2 (July 2017), https://periodicos.ufjf.br/index.php/TeoriaeCultura/article/view/12374 ↩
- Jean-Michel Arnold, the founder of the Cinémathèque Nationale Algérienne, seems to have shared Maldoror’s sensibility: in 1969, he organised the first pan-African film festival – although a second would not take place until August 2009. ↩
- Filipa César with Sana na N’Hada, “In Memory of Sarah Maldoror”, Arsenal Insitut für film und videokunst e.V. (April 24, 2020), https://www.arsenal-berlin.de/en/home/single/article/8387/2796.html ↩
- Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit soldat, made in 1961 but not released until 1963, and Alain Resnais’ Muriel (1963) are usually cited as the first films to break through the taboo surrounding the use of torture by the French in Algeria. ↩
- Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc,” Bidoun 24 (Spring 2011), https://www.bidoun.org/articles/mathieu-kleyebe-abonnenc ↩
- Jadot Sezirahiga, interview with Sarah Maldoror, Écrans d’Afrique/African Screens 12 (1995), as quoted in Wilson-Goldie. In the same interview, she would say: “The African woman must be everywhere: on the screen, behind the camera, in the editing room, in every stage of the making of a film. She must be the one to talk about her problems.” ↩
- Josef Gugler, “Sambizanga” in African Film: Re-imagining a Continent (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), p. 55; Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, Black African Cinema (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), p. 234. This technically represented a conflict of interest as France was a NATO ally of Portugal. ↩
- Sarah Maldoror as quoted in Viktoria Metschl, “Sarah Maldoror”, https://www.filmmuseum.at/en/film_program/scope?schienen_id=1522590348726 ↩