Remembering Sarah Maldoror, the Mother of African Cinema

Remembering Sarah Maldoror, the Mother of African Cinema

Before she passed away in April 2020 from COVID-19-related complications, Sarah Maldoror lived a full life as a pioneer of African cinema. On her power as an activist and her rich intelligence as a filmmaker, Aliya Arman pays tribute to the artist. 

Referring to Sarah Maldoror strictly as a filmmaker fails to do justice to her commitment to international liberation movements beyond the camera. Much of Maldoror’s illustrious career stands behind her mission to make the presence of African women felt at every stage in film production, exemplifying an acute gaze which led her to be the first woman to direct a feature film in the continent.

“They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film,” she explains. “African women must be everywhere – they must be the ones to talk about their problems.”

For Maldoror, films are more than just a visual expression of the poetic – they also present the political. The art of filmmaking is “a revolutionary tool, a political education to raise consciousness” she has reaffirmed at numerous points in her career. When the visibility of African women was often left to monolithic strategies of Western filmmakers, Maldoror recognised that there was serious work to be done in finally forming a visual and narrative syntax that uniquely speaks to them, speaks for them, and most importantly, is spoken by them.

Today, her vision feels more resonant than ever, as we witness the world convulsed by protests following violent repercussions of systematic racism, at a time which feels especially unprecedented following Maldoror’s recent passing in April due to COVID-19 complications.

Born to an Antillean father and a French mother in 1938, the young filmmaker’s journey into the world of theatre began when she founded the Compagnie d’Art Dramatique des Griots, the first acting troupe in Paris to showcase the talents of African and Caribbean performers.

She studied at a drama school in the capital, where she was later awarded a scholarship to study film with Mark Donskoy at the Vladimir Garden’s film school in Moscow in 1961. The very same programme was attended by Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, a contemporary of Maldoror who was also warmly remembered as one of the major early influences in African cinematic identity. There she learnt the ideas of négritude, the philosophical movement which examined the literary convergence of Black artistic and political identity.

Maldoror’s transition from theatre to cinema can be pinpointed in Algeria where she assisted in the film production of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and then for William Klein in his feature film Festival panafricain d’Alger.

Her first director credit came in the form of Monangambée ,a film which takes its title from the rumbling war cry heard from village to village by community leaders warning working-class Angolans of fast-approaching Portuguese slave traders – and by extension, would act as a siren of the fast – approaching threat of deportation. Once collectively associated with the arrival of Portuguese colonial powers, the cry carried through well into the ‘60s and the present day, where it is now widely known as an organising call for the People’s Liberation Front.

Monangambée is based on a short story by white Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira, a tale which illustrates the cultural incomprehension between the Portuguese and the Angolans. In one conversation between a Portuguese officer keeping watch over his Angolan prisoner, the linguistic confusion over fato completo - a term referring to a traditional fish dish in Angola but also a literal translation of ‘suit’ in Portuguese - leads to a violent confrontation in which the officer orders for him to be beaten out of fear of a secret message from outside resistance concealed in his outfit. Meshing together documentary stills of prison life and a poignant soundtrack provided by the Chicago Art Ensemble, Maldoror’s film was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, and won the award for Best Director at the Carthage Film Festival.

Maldoror was no stranger to grassroots activism. She was dedicated to learning the individual and shared aims of the African liberation movements across Guinea, Algeria and Guinea Bissau with fellow contemporary artist Mario Pinto de Andrade who later became Angola’s first postcolonial president in 1960.

In 1972, Maldoror released her career-defining work Sambizanga, an award-winning feature film which focuses on the political trajectory of Maria, an Angolan woman whose husband, construction worker Domingos Xavier, dies in prison custody after refusing to disclose the name of a Portuguese man who was sympathetic to the anti-colonial cause. Of course, Maldoror knew that presenting the torture and death of a Black Angolan at the hands of the colonial powers due to his absolute loyalty to his white comrade is an unexpected tonal shift when it comes to race dynamics. But it is a deliberate one. “The colour of a person’s skin is of no interest to me,” she explained to Michel Larouche in his 1991 book Films d’Afrique, “What is important is what the person is doing… For me, there are only the exploiters and the exploited, that’s all.”

The film largely follows from the footsteps of Maria who travels across Angola’s capital Luanda to try and free her husband Domingos from police custody. In an interview with Jadot Sezirahiga for Ecrans d’Afrique, Maldoror commented that the key objective of the film was to portray the role and participation of women in a liberation struggle because “in the end, wars only work if women take part.”

“They don’t have to hold a bazooka, but they have to be present”.

Being a filmmaker from the diaspora, Maldoror’s status as an African woman has often been met with challenges. She acknowledges with humility throughout her career how the privilege of her French nationality has given her the means to make stories in African cinema accessible to a wider audience. Monangambée, for instance, is almost entirely spoken in French – Maldoror’s mother tongue – despite being a story set against the backdrop of the decolonisation era of Portuguese-speaking Angola. For Maldoror, nationality is irrelevant: “Does it matter where I am from? For Africans, I am African.”

And the filmmaker is certainly not the only one to hold this view. Events such as the 1995 festival Rencontres Cinématographiques de Dakar, where Maldoror’s work was exhibited to Senegalese filmgoers, support her belief that being African by birth was never a prerequisite. What is even more relevant than the physical passport Maldoror held were the principles of cultural identity that she carried. For many creatives from the continent, such as Safi Faye, the first sub-Saharan African woman to direct a commercially distributed feature film, seeing the successes of a woman of colour director allowed her to embrace her own films as being “first of all for Africans, for African people - those who know what Africa is and those who don’t know, although they think they do.”

When the world had already assigned Sarah Maldoror as African by descent, and African by culture, it only made sense to play to her strength her unique perspective as a diaspora artist to disseminate the stories on a global stage. Indeed, straddling being both inside and outside the continent not only gave Sarah Maldoror the chance to shape the cultural history of African cinematic identity, but also gave Francophone audiences a chance to listen to voices behind the decolonisation era. In 2012, France's former culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand awarded Maldoror with the Chevalier dans l’Ordre National du Mérite, an accolade commending her services to French cinema, and her lifetime commitment to “filling the dearth of representation of African women in front and behind the camera.”


Even in her last public presentation in May 2019, Maldoror continues to send out the same message with the same vivacity as in her early year. “Children must, from a very young age, go to the movies and read poetry, to build a better world,” she told an audience of young people at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. Her unwavering commitment to cultural education across communities and generations within the arts punctuates her raison d’être.

Leaving the world with a legacy of pioneering achievements, Martinican surrealist artist and a dear friend of Maldoror, Aimé Césaire sums up best how the mother of African cinema will be best remembered, in the this poem:

To Sarah Maldo

who, a camera in hand,

fights oppression, alienation

and flies in the face

of human bullshit.

Aliya Arman (@aliyadotcom) is a freelance writer based in London. She loves to write about youth and digital culture through the lens of race and class politics. In September, she will begin her MA in Interactive Journalism at City University.

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