Behind the Cloud: Sarah Maldoror

Paris — SARAH MALDOROR, the director of Sambizanga (1972), an internationally recognized pioneer of PanAfrican cinema, has  died in Paris on April 13, 2020

Behind the cloud: Sarah Maldoror
The voice of the oppressed and of the dissidents, the filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, a pioneer of PanAfrican cinema, has passed on April 13, 2020, of complications from coronavirus.
Her luminous cinematic oeuvre, including more than 40 films, reveals a valiant fighter, curious about everything, generous, sassy, very caring about others, who crossed all sorts of boundaries with her poetic approach.
Born on July 19, 1929 of a Guadeloupian father (from Marie Galante) and a mother from the Southwest of France (Gers), she chose Maldoror as her artist’s name as homage to The Songs of Maldoror, the work of the surrealist poet Lautréamont.
All her life, her actions and her choices echoed this first artistic gesture.
Starting in theater, in 1956 she founded Les griots, the first troupe composed of African and African-Caribbean actors “to be done with the maidservant parts,” she said, and “to bring attention to black artists and writers.” The poster of their first performance, No Exit, was designed by the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. It was followed by Aimé Césaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe and Jean Genet’s The Blacks, directed by Roger Blain. This theatrical dimension, combined with a desire to pass on other cultures, have remained at the core of his creativity.
In 1961, she went to Moscow to study cinema with Mark Donskoy. There she learned the concept of cinematic frame, teamwork, and a constant availability to the unexpected: “always be ready to catch what could be hidden behind the cloud,” she said.
After her stay in the Soviet Union, she joined the pioneers of the African liberation movements, in Guinea, Algeria and Guinea Bissau, alongside her companion, Mario de Andrade, a poet and politician from Angola, who founded the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and became the liberated country’s first president. Two daughters were born, Annouchka in Moscow and Henda in Rabat (Morocco).
Political concerns have remained at the core of her work. She liked to repeat: “For many African filmmakers, cinema is a revolutionary tool, a political education to raise consciousness. It is inscribed in the evolution of a Third Cinema striving to decolonize thought and advocate radical changes in society.”
She started working in cinema in Algiers, with Gillo Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers (1965) then William Klein for Festival panafricain d’Alger (1969). Her first film, Monangambee (1969), adapted from a short story by Angolan writer Luandino Vieira, deals with the lack of understanding between colonizer and colonized people. With a magnificent soundtrack by the Chicago Art Ensemble, this first masterpiece garnered several awards at the Carthage Film Festival, including Best Director.
In Sambizanga (1972) – screenplay by Maurice Pons and Mario de Andrade – she follows the political trajectory of a woman whose husband dies under torture in prison to describe the struggle of the Angolan movement of liberation.
This multiple-award-winning film is one of the major works of African Cinema and assures her international reputation as a politically committed artist.
Settling in Paris, she then shifted to the documentary format, defining a horizon where it would be possible to restore black history and its most memorable figures: artists (Ana Mercedes Hoyas), poets (Aimed Cesar, Leon G Dames) and trail-blazers (Toto Bissainthe. She also demonstrated her brilliant ecclectism with her cinematic portraits of Miro, Louis Aragon or Emmanuel Ungaro.
Writer/producer/director Frédéric Mitterrand said that “she had contributed to fill the deficit of images of African women in front of and behind the camera.”
Sarah Maldoror used her acute gaze to embrace the struggles against all sorts of intolerances and prejudices, as in Un dessert pour Constance, based on a short story by Daniel Boulanger. Solidarity among the oppressed, resistance to political repression and culture as a unique means to lift society’s ideals – were of paramount importance for her. During her last public presentation, at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid in May 2019, she repeated that children must, from a very young age, go to the movies and read poetry, to build a better world.
An outspoken rebel, a determined humanist, Sarah Maldoror celebrated that artist’s and the art’s political commitment as an act of freedom.
Her friend, the poet Aimé Césaire, wrote to her:
To Sarah Maldo
caméra au poing,
combat l’oppression
et défie
la connerie humaine.
(To Sarah Maldo
who, a camera in hand,
fights oppression, alienation
and flies in the face
of human bullshit.)
And we will forever remain on the lookout for the cloud…