Sarah Maldoror, 1974
There are unsolved questions, gaps, mysteries, and misunderstandings (willful or not) in Sarah Maldoror’s career and biography that are best summarized by the origin of her name: Maldoror is the title of one of the ‘venomous’ flowers of French culture, The Songs of Maldoror, a book-length descent into hell written by 19th-century-poet Lautréamont. By choosing this name as an alias, Maldoror posited herself within French culture’claiming some of its most sophisticated, albeit slightly elitist aspects while simultaneously embracing its iconoclastic tradition (Lautréamont is hailed as an ancestor to Rimbaud and the Surrealists). In one word, she paid homage to the dilemma of the French-speaking black intellectual: in love with and a part of French culture, yet deeply aware that he/she will never belong to the ‘mainstream.’
Another tantalizing question: where does Maldoror come from?
Even though she made some of her better-known movies in Africa, she was born in France, and is discreet about the nature of her West Indian (Guadeloupean) descent. The point is, like many children of mixed parentage, Maldoror proudly claims her black heritage, and identifies with it. The most puzzling question: why wasn’t Maldoror given the opportunity to direct more feature films after Sambizanga? As it stands now, her filmography is particularly impressive, as she has turned her camera, her incisive and generous gaze, her sense of rhythm and poetry, to a number of subjects, from the history of the Saint Denis Cathedral to African immigration in Paris, from the work of poets, fashion designers, sculptors, and singers (including the legendary Haitian Toto Bissainte, one of the four members of the theater group ‘Les Griots’ she founded in the early 1960s), to adaptation of literary works (such as L’h’pital de Leningrad, from a short story by Victor Serge, or Le passager du Tassili, from a novel by Akli Tadjer).
Yet, after Monangamé’e, Guns for Banta, and mostly Sambizanga, our appetite was whetted, and we were expecting more African revolutionary movies from Sarah Maldoror. Not only because there are still so few women working as directors in the African continent, but because Sambizanga, combining a superb mastery of cinematic language with a unique sensibility, both Pan-African and feminine, expressed a new, powerful voice in world cinema: African women had never been shown with such compassion, understanding, and love, with such a keen attention to detail, body language, and modes of communication. When Maria’s husband is brutally kidnapped by the police, she is immediately surrounded by a group of village women of all ages who cry and
mourn with her, comfort her, eventually pacify her. After a long and exhausting journey in her search for her jailed husband, she arrives at the home of friends, where she is welcomed by a community of women; one of them takes Maria’s baby in her arms and suckles him. bell hooks wrote: [inSambizanga] there are black women imaged, constructed there so differently from what i had seen before, i remember the cries of these black women in their sister bonding . . . their cries haunt me these mourning black women, their grief unmediated, different.?
Yet Maldoror’s life also articulates the essential displacement which defines women in the African diaspora; her own situation is made more complex by her involvement with Mario de Andrade, a complex, charismatic figure who was a writer, artist, and poet as well as a political leader who contributed to the Revolution in Angola. In the early 1960s, they received scholarships to go to Moscow (where she studied with Mark Donsko) and met Ousmane Sembene, the ‘father’ of African cinema), as the Soviet Union sought to play a role in the emerging African countries and train its new elites. At that time, the left-wing intelligentsias in Europe, Latin America, and Africa believed that only the ‘Third World’ could foster world revolution. This was a time of struggle and Utopia.
For some African essentialists, though, Maldoror is still considered a ‘foreigner,’ only redeemed by ‘her long service to the black and African causes and her marriage [sic] to a prominent African nationalist.’ Significantly, the same writer adds that ‘[Sambizanga’s] deliberate feminist slant . . . dilutes the impact of the films concern with armed guerrilla struggle,’ forgetting to mention that Sambizanga is one of Angela Davis’s personal favorites.
Sarah on set of Sambizanga
Sarah on the set of A Bissau le-carnaval
When Maldoror came back to live in France and started working for television in the late 1970s, she was faced with another aspect of this cultural dilemma (characterized by the French as m?tissage): as she claims at once French, West Indian, and African cultures, she is considered from neither place (not African enough for some, too black for others), and, as a woman, she has to fight across-the-border prejudices at a professional level.
Moreover, French television is not known for the cultural diversity of its programs, as it postulates an average white t’l’spectateur. It is, therefore, a testimony to Maldoror’s stamina, strength, and determination that, as funding for another feature film keeps eluding her, she has managed to work within a variety of formats (shorts, TV films, featurettes), and, among a series of more or less commissioned works, insert the object of her real desire, the telling, uncovering, and celebration of the stories, myths, traditions, memories of a multifaceted African diaspora. In Martinique, she shotAimé Césaire, Words as Masks, a multi-voiced, sensual, impressionist portrait of the French-speaking poet/playwright/politician who developed the concept of négritude. In Guyana, another documentary, L’on G. Damaswas filmed. In Réunion Maldoror made The Tribe of the ‘E’ Wood. And she is still trying to raise money for Colonel Delgr’s, a feature about a colonel from the West Indies, who loved classical music, fought in Napoleon’s armies, came to believe in the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity, but found, upon returning to his native island of Guadeloupe, that slavery has been re-established. A man who, like Maldoror, knew the price of treading the narrow line between races and cultures.
- 1969: Monangambée (short). 1970: Des Fusils pour Banta (Guns for Banta).
- 1971: Carnaval en Guinée-Bissau(Carnival in Guinea-Bissau) (short); Saint-Denis sur Avenir (The Future of Saint Denis)(featurette).
- 1972:Sambizanga. 1977: Un carnaval dans le Sahel (Carnival in Sahel) (short); Fogo, Ile de Feu (short); Et les Chiens se taisaient (And the Dogs Kept Silent) (short); Un Homme, une Terre (A Man, a Country) (featurette).
- 1980: La Basilique de Saint Denis (short); Un dessert pour Constance (A Dessert for Constance) (featurette for TV).
- 1981:Le Cimetè?re du Père Lachaise (short); Mir? (short); Alberto Carliski,
- 1982: Robert Lapoujade, Peintre (short); Toto Bissainte, Chanteuse (short); Ren? Depestre, Poète (short); L’hôpital de Leningrad(Leningrad Hospital)(featurette for TV).
- 1983: La littérature tunisienne de la Biblioth’que Nationale (Tunisian Literature at the National Library) (for TV); Un Sénégalais en Normandie (A
Senegalese in Normandy) (for TV);Robert Doisneau, Photographe (for TV); Le racisme au quotidien (Daily-Life Racism) (for TV).
- 1985: Le passager du Tassili (The Tassili Passenger) (for TV).
- 1986: Aimé Césaire, le masque designer mots (Aimé Césaire, Words as Masks) (short).
- 1988: Emmanuel Ungaro, Couturier (short); Louis Aragon, Un Masque ? Paris (short); Vlady, Peintre (short). 1996: L?on G. Damas (short).
- 1997: L’enfantcinéma (Cinema-Child) (short).
- 1998: La tribu du bois de l?? (The Tribe of the le Wood).
1960-62 founded the black theater company Les Griots in which she also worked as director and actor; 1965 assistant to Gillo de Pontercorvo on The Battle of Algiers; 1969 directed her first short in Algeria, Monangambée; 1970 directed her first feature in Guinea-Bissau, Guns for Banta.
First Prize, Dinard Film Festival, and Best Director Award, Carthage Film Festival, for Monangambee, 1969; Golden Tanis, Carthage Film Festival, and International Catholic Film Office award, Ouagadougou Film Festival, Upper Volta, for Sambizanga, 1972; Label de la Qualité for Vlady-Peintre, 1988;First Prize, Milan Film Festival, and Jury Prize and Critics Prize, Cairo Film Festival, for Léon G. Damas, 1996.
Honor : Médaille du mérite – chevalier. By the ministre of culture Fréderic Mitterrand.
Sarah Ducados, in Condom, Gers, France.
Attended école d’art Dramatique de la rue Blanche, Paris, 1958-60; studied with Mark Donskoi at University Lomonosov, All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), Moscow, 1961-62.
Companion to the president/founder of the Popular Movement for Angolan Liberation (MPLA) Mario de Andrade (died 1990), two daughters: Anna Ginga and Heinda Lucia.
Luanda – Exposition Sarah Maldoror : Cinema Tricontinental
After passing through the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, and Torreão Nascente of Cordoaria Nacional in Lisbon, the exhibition “Sarah Maldoror: Tricontinental Cinema” that arrived in Luanda proposes and offers a wandering through a landscape – in fact, here, a landscape of films – mixing animated images, documents, correspondence, photographs and poetry. A space will
Sight and Sound article
IN MEMORIAM – SARAH MALDOROR Though her name remains unfamiliar to most, the Frenchborn filmmaker’s work is central to postcolonial African cinema. By Sukhdev Sandhu It was only in her late Sos that Sarah Maldoror, who died in April at the age of 90 from coronavirus-related complications, began to attract the sustained attention of contemporaryRead more
Woman With a Weapon-Camera – The New Inquiry
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Rest in Power, Sarah Maldoror (1929-2020)
The Screen Worlds team would like to express our most heartfelt gratitude to the pioneering filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, who passed away in Paris this week from Covid-19 complications. Sarah was the first woman of colour to direct a feature film in Africa and became respectfully known as the Matriarch of African Cinema. After working asRead more