Sarah Maldoror: The “Matriarch of African Film” is dead

HSarah Maldoror would be passed from one talk show to another, the Minister of Culture would appoint her to expert commissions, and she would receive one award after the other. In the 1970s, her great time, she was met with extreme distrust in the Federal Republic. If she hadn’t had a French passport, the border police would have denied her entry because she represented everything that West Germany did not stand for.

She was a black intellectual, a feminist, and married to the founder of Angola’s Marxist People’s Liberation Front. She fought against colonialism with the arms of a filmmaker (first in Algeria, against our EEC ally France, then in Angola, against our NATO ally Portugal). She was the cultural-ideological enemy, a kind of Afro-French Angela Davis.

Sarah Ducados was the daughter of a father from the overseas colony of Guadeloupe and a French mother. It was a poor childhood in Gascony, in the home of the Musketeer d’Artagnan, in a brutal educational home, until she fled to Paris, but not to the chic Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but to the parallel world of the children of the colonies . There were no laurels in the white majority society, at best black maid roles in the theater, and because it made her angry, she decided to adopt an artist name: Sarah Maldoror.

The stage name as a provocation

It was a provocation. The title hero of the “Chants of Maldoror”, the only work by the French poet Lautréamont, is a “black, shattered archangel of unspeakable beauty”, as the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck described him. He was a “sun of evil” (“Aurore du Mal”, a phonetic anagram from Maldoror), stranded among mankind, to whom he wanted to show his own badness. The book is one of the most radical in Western literature, unlike all the other “non-filmable” books, there is still no film version of it after more than 150 years.

Maldoror founded a black theater company, Les Griots, and adapted Sartre and Genet. The only ones who honored this were the Soviets, who, like many left-wing Third World artists, invited them to study at the Moscow Film Academy in the class of the great Mark Donskoi, director of the Gorki trilogy. She, who was to become the “Matriarch of African Cinema”, studied there with Ousmane Sembène, who later became “Father of African Cinema”.

When she finished her studies, nothing was like before. Independence movements rumbled all over Africa, and Maldoror moved to Algeria, which had just become independent. She became an assistant director at the “Battle of Algiers”, the still definitive film about decolonialization; she participated in Elles, a study of Algerian women after the revolution.

The government didn’t like Maldoror’s film

Even then, the world could not be divided into black and white. In 1971 Maldoror went to the Cape Verde Islands to film the liberation struggle against the colonial power Portugal there on behalf of the Algerian government. Maldoro was interested in the women who stood at the stove at home during the day and carried guns and bombs at night. It was not what their clients wanted to see. “Des fusils pour Banta” was never completed and is considered lost.

A year later, Maldoror found himself in the Congo, this time under the patronage of the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola), the liberation movement that fought against the Portuguese in the neighboring country. She wanted to make “Sambizanga”, the very first feature film by a black director on the African continent. The screenplay was written by the poet Mário Pinto de Andrade, co-founder of the MPLA (and Maldoror’s husband), and was based on a story by Luandino Vieira (whom the Portuguese locked up for eleven years because he had made lists of Portuguese deserters public).

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“Sambizanga” is about Domingos, tractor operator and father of a family and rather accidental person who passed on a revolutionary flyer. He is picked up at dawn and brutally interrogated in prison. Nevertheless, this is not Domingo’s film, but that of his wife Maria. Maldoror shows her how she goes with the baby in her arms on the long way to the capital Luanda and is sent there from Pontius to Pilatus, from one prison to another. When she finally comes to the right one, it’s too late: Domingos has been beaten to death.

Sambizanga (1972) A film by SARAH MALDOROR

Domingos de Oliveira (bottom right) in the leading role of “Sambizanga” (1972)

Source: Courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Maria’s Odyssey is not a pure Via Dolorosa; wherever she goes, she experiences solidarity from members of the resistance, but above all from other women. Maria is a beautiful woman, a vital and stubborn and strong woman, but not a political activist; maybe the experience will make them do it. In any case, she was a unique character for African film, which is still largely dominated by men.

“You can’t live without going to the cinema”

Maldoror’s film ends with preparations for an attack on the prison where Domingos was murdered. This attack actually happened. On February 4, 1961, the Portuguese torture center was attacked in Sambizanga, a suburb of Luanda; it was the MPLA’s first military operation. The event found virtually no echo in Western media; if so, then as a little note about a terrorist action. At that time, the West was on the wrong side far too often and far too long, which is constantly falling on its feet in the post-colonial debate.

Sarah Maldoror was then only able to make three feature films, but two dozen documentaries, in France, the Soviet Union, Algeria and Tunisia. They are often about protagonists of Négritude, an artistic movement that wanted to lay the foundations for a black identity and political emancipation from colonialism. There were also documentaries about the poet Louis Aragon, the painter Joan Miró or the church of Saint-Denis.

“The cinema is essential. You can’t live without going to the cinema, ”Sarah Maldoror always said. Now she has died at the age of 90 near Paris as a result of Covid-19, which has locked all cinemas.

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