Woman With a Weapon-Camera

On the work of Sarah Maldoror

Sarah Maldoror

Sarah Maldoror was a voice for history. I borrow this phrase from Euzhan Palcy, a Black woman filmmaker, like Maldoror, who demanded an autonomous place behind the camera. Aimé Césaire: A Voice for History (1994) is Palcy’s magnificent three-part film on her mentor, the Négritude founder, writer, and political figure. Maldoror and Césaire were also friends and collaborators, and he once wrote a poem dedicated to her:

À Sarah Maldoror…
qui,

caméra au poing,

combat l’oppression,

l’aliénation

et défie

la connerie humaine.

(To Sarah Maldoror…

who, camera in hand, fights oppression, alienation
and defies human bullshit.)

This web of intertextual borrowings and interpersonal relations is the foundation of much of Maldoror and her fellow film travelers’ efforts in creating alternative cinemas. While she had her specific and singular outlook, Maldoror was nevertheless a filmmaker whose primary investments were in collective work.

On April 13, 2020 the anti-colonial, Pan-Africanist, feminist artist and agitator passed away from COVID-19.

When I think of Maldoror I think of the tasks of gathering, cataloguing, and educating — perhaps not familiar terms to describe the work of a director mostly known for her narrative filmmaking. Yet hers was a far larger historical project, attentive to the legacies of Black cultural production as part of a revolutionary commitment to upending systems of colonial oppression.

The image Césaire created of Maldoror with a camera in hand as a kind of weapon draws a line to the logic of Third Cinema, a political and artistic movement in the backdrop of many of her films. In their manifesto “Hacia un tercer cine” (“Toward a Third Cinema”), the Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino gave the name “Third Cinema” to the Latin American wave of militant film in the 1960s and 1970s. The term gained broader currency, to include other revolutionary cinematic practices emerging from the Global South. This manifesto stated plainly, “With the camera as our rifle, we do in fact move into a guerrilla activity.” In these terms the camera was an educational and rallying tool against colonialism and imperialism that did not shy from the necessary violence of abolishing these systems. This tradition of cinema represented a threat as well as a promise that something really might change if the mechanisms of colonial exploitation, and exploitation of any kind, were not just shown but explained. Césaire’s sketch of Maldoror, holding onto her camera-weapon, captures exactly the sense of uncompromising defiance and militant force that initially drew me to her cinema.

Like many, I first came to Maldoror through her much-lauded first feature film, the 1972 Sambizanga. Winner of the prestigious Tanit d’or prize at the Carthage Film Festival the year it was made, this film established Maldoror as the first woman to direct a feature film on the African continent, making her a unique figure in both the rise of African cinemas and revolutionary Third Cinema. This film has appeared with relative consistency in lineups focused on the anti-colonial tradition. Maldoror’s significant cultural and historical contributions have also been recognized by somewhat more ironic parties: In 2012 she was awarded the status of chevalier dans l’ordre national du Mérite by Frédéric Mitterrand, the then French cultural minster.

Yet there has still been a certain limitation on engagements with Maldoror, which is partially, but not only, an issue with the restricted access to her full filmography. The genealogy of African cinema, like Third Cinema, is undeniably masculinist. While there is not an absolute absence of canonical films centering women in either tradition — for example Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 La noire de… or Humberto Solás’s 1968 Lucía — as Maldoror herself said, “African women must be everywhere. They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems.” The first woman of African continental nationality to direct a feature film was the Senegalese Safi Faye, with the 1975 Kaddu Beykat. Even for those familiar with the high point of African cinema, both Faye and Maldoror’s work is not unlikely to be sidelined. This gendered obscuring had severe material repercussions in lack of funding and support when these filmmakers were active and also affects contemporary efforts toward restoration and distribution.

In her films, Maldoror pushed against the episodic tendency in certain revolutionary movements to both elide issues of gender in their programs for change and also give insufficient recognition to the always present participation of women. During an interview a few years ago, Maldoror made clear her stance that no war could be won without women. From her perspective, an anti-colonial war fought only in the formal military sense, by soldiers and not the whole population, was already lost. What has captivated me most about her films is how this redress in terms of the place of women also oriented her toward an attention to the forms of revolution embedded in the small acts of care and solidarity among the colonized. Her fictional films were made not about major historical figures but about everyday people. Maldoror’s practice of counterhistory and counterimaging was threefold: pointing to the already central role of women, upholding figures of Black culture who received insufficient recognition, and pushing back against institutionalized narratives that singularized struggle, to make it clear that historical change will always be made by those who are likely to remain anonymous. To return to Palcy’s phrasing, “a voice for history,” Maldoror might more specifically be a channel for the multiple voices of small histories.
Sarah Maldoror was born Sarah Ducados in 1929 in Gers, in the southwest of France, to a Guadeloupean father and a French mother. Interested in theater from a young age, she eventually moved to Paris and joined a theater school. It was at this time that, in a gesture of self-creation, she took on the name Maldoror, from the Surrealist writer Comte de Lautréamont’s /i>Les Chants de Maldoror. Her first act as an artist was to reinvent herself and to give a newly subversive value to a known quantity. While not an uncommon gesture, I think this renaming signals the foundational belief in the possibilities of remaking and renewing that underpins so much of her work. Unsurprisingly, the theater scene in which she found herself was unwelcoming to Black artists. Rather than attempt an individual navigation of this hostile environment, she cofounded the first theatrical troupe of Black and Caribbean actors. This too set the tone for her future work: a consistent determination to gather people in collective projects. Maldoror was exemplary in materially acting out her conviction that the work of liberation was a communal endeavor, as she actively created spaces in which her collaborators, across strata, could come together.

The troupe, called “Les Griots,” was started in 1956 and organized with her friends the Senegalese Ababacar Samb Makharam (who also became a filmmaker), Ivorian Timité Bassori, Guadeloupean Robert Liensol, and Haitian singer Toto Bissainthe (a longtime friend and subject of one of Maldoror’s later documentaries). The group staged such works as Aimé Césaire’s La Tragédie du roi Christophe and Jean Genet’s Les Nègres. Wilfredo Lam, the Afro-Asian Cuban artist designed the poster for their first play, Huis Clos. Lam, whose work was a form of decolonial surrealism that found ways to honor rather than exploit aesthetics drawn from across the African diaspora, was another accomplice of Maldoror’s. An aspect of her work I find particularly fascinating is how she maintained an evolving conversation between her cinematic medium and an interest in the more traditional plastic arts, continuing to draw inspiration from paintings in her filmic images. The eventual move away from theater and toward cinema was among other things a strategic decision, in line with her communal anchoring. Maldoror was seeking a medium with broader accessibility.

Her turn to film began in 1961, training with Mark Semyonovich Donskoy at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. There, she overlapped with a fellow luminary of anti-colonial African cinema, the Senegalese Ousmane Sembène (this is one historical encounter I would do anything to have eavesdropped on). Another notable credential was her position as assistant director on Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 The Battle of Algiers, which has been canonized as a blueprint for political cinema. Maldoror shot her own first film, an 18-minute short, in 1969. This short, Monangambée, would be her second Pan-Africanist project, after the theater troupe.

Pan-Africanism was a key orientation for Maldoror. The term gained public currency in 1900 at the First Pan-African Conference, attended by W. E. B. Du Bois among other delegates gathered under motivations of a Black internationalism and demands for self-governance in the colonies. Capacious and evolving, the term holds a vision of a political, cultural community for those of African descent, united by a common set of oppressions and broad goal of liberation. The Pan-Africanism that informed Maldoror specifically would consider these oppressions to be at the junctures of anti-Blackness, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. The lineage she worked in was also crossed with Négritude, the Francophone literary and cultural movement started in the 1930s, but by no means limited to those origins.

Malodoror’s Pan-Africanism was lived on the scale of her life as well as put on screen. In a recent interview, her daughter Annouchka de Andrade explained that her mother never had any connection to her family in Guadeloupe, didn’t speak Creole, and without a comfortable claim to either West Indian or French identity chose instead to say she was from wherever she was working at the time. It is important to note that much of African cinema has had a strong nationalistic character, and Maldoror’s place outside of this circuitry is itself a defining aspect of her work. There is indeed a restlessness to Maldoror’s cinema, which was also geographically dispersed, with films shot in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, France, Martinique, Guiana, the People’s Republic of Congo, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Her first film, Monangambée, in many ways reveals both the political solidarity and the cultural pluralism of her Pan-Africanism. This film was inspired by the Angolan author José Luandino Vieira’s The Real Life of Domingos Xavier, featured music from the avant-garde jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and was filmed in Algeria. The narrative of Monangambée is focused on the torture by the Portuguese army of an Angolan revolutionary sympathizer whose wife visits him in prison with a promise to bring a complet. The colonial police, surveilling them during this brief reunion, immediately assume that the complet is connected to an insurgent plan of escape or revolt. The film opens with a title card, explaining that a complet is “a dish of beans with fish, palm oil and bananas. Daily food in the slums of Luanda (Angola).” Already in this first shot of her first short, Maldoror demonstrated how she could put cinematic formal acuity in the service of a particular political position. The title card has the effect of inviting the audience to the side of the oppressed, sharing a specific cultural knowledge so that the spectator cannot be aligned with the ignorant oppressions of the colonial forces.

It is also worth noting that the opposition between the “innocence” of the term’s real meaning as a food dish and the guard’s suspicion that it refers to an insurgent plan is itself a false binary. In the Manichean logic of the colonial authority, there is nothing threatening in a dish of food. Yet in Maldoror’s cinematic focus on the unrecorded acts of revolution, providing a comforting dish of food would absolutely be an insurgent action, subverting the brutality of colonial power by insisting on small avenues of care. The film overall hinges on a linguistic misunderstanding, coding for the fundamental miscomprehension across culture and language, between colonizer and colonized. The colonizers’ fundamental disinterest in the cultures of the people they colonized and intentional ignorance are the very antithesis of Maldoror’s politics of exchange. Where the narrative shows an unwillingness to listen, I consider that her approach to the stories she told was defined by a sense of generous openness. Her look on the world was always also an act of listening.

This politics of exchange and openness is picked up in Sambizanga, in which listening, orality, and the passing of information are shown to also be acts of revolution. Sambizanga is an extension of her first short film, based on the same story. The screenplay was cowritten by her husband, Mário Coelho Pinto de Andrade, an Angolan poet and political figure, and Maurice Pons, a French writer. Among many other roles, her husband was also an important member of the Angolan Communist Party and founded the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). This connection also sustained her films, which featured amateur actors affiliated with local revolutionary movements. People from MPLA played roles in both Monangambée and Sambizanga. In lusophone Africa, former Portuguese colonies such as Mozambique and Angola, guerilla liberation groups were very much involved in the production of films, precisely because they were seen as strategically crucial tools of education. More overtly focused on the Angolan liberation struggle than Monangambée, Sambizanga received financial support from the French Centre national du cinéma (CNC) but was banned by Portuguese colonial authorities until 1974, the year of formal Angolan independence. More than a historical document with an anti-colonial perspective, this film was banned for being an unambiguous call to armed revolt. Maldoror would have been unlikely to receive this support from the CNC had Sambizanga been a film about a French colony. Colonial governments might be open to supporting indictments of other colonizing nations, but far more rarely will they allow grievances against their own. This atomized idea of coloniality is one that is undone by Maldoror’s cinema, precisely because her perspective was formed by Pan-Africanism and global anti-colonialism. The charge against one colony was directed at all of them. In Monangambée, for example, even though the story is focused on an Angolan context, the filming location implies a double indictment that includes the French torture of Algerians.

Sambizanga was filmed in the People’s Republic of Congo, then a Marxist-Leninist state, taking its name from the setting, a black working-class suburb of Luanda, the capital of Angola. The film is set at a point of rupture in Angolan history, a few weeks before the 1961 uprising that catalyzed the beginning of the resistance movement. The arc of the story centers on a young couple, Maria and Domingos, and the rising political consciousness that comes with a direct confrontation with the particular horrors of colonial domination exposed when Domingos is imprisoned on suspicion of revolutionary activity. Maria is ultimately the focal point of this film, as we follow her carrying their young child in her intransigent effort to liberate her husband and galvanize support. As emphasized in this film — and I would say modeled by her own life — for Maldoror motherhood and militancy were not oppositional but motivated by the same courage, the same resilience, and the same drive to protect the future.

Sambizanga ends with a celebration in song, “Mama Uelele,” which is being played to everyone present, and, as one of the characters states, to “all our comrades in prison.” The song in the film is a moment of remembrance for the dead, an address to the imprisoned, and a reminder that there were yet necessary struggles and possible victories on the horizon. The final scene is a conversation among revolutionaries planning to free prisoners, with the date set as February 4. Maldoror closes the film with a sort of opening, as this day in 1961 was the start of the armed struggle against the Portuguese colonists. Sambizanga presents the colonial apparatus as both a cold bureaucracy and a brutal force, exposing the monstrosities of the prison to make an argument for the necessity of collective transformation and mass mobilization of the oppressed. That this film is exemplary of cinema as a political intervention and a masterpiece is to my mind without question. Yet I also would contend that the focus on Sambizanga has at times obscured the prolific and multiform nature of Maldoror’s work. No small irony that a film which itself works diligently against reductive narratives would become enfolded in a singularizing cap on this filmmaker’s extraordinary scope of work.

While they might be classified in a variety of ways, I would also place Monangambée and Sambizanga in a genealogy of abolitionist works. The very antithesis of Maldoror’s cinema of openness is imprisonment. In her exquisite 1994 short film Léon G. Damas, on the Négritude poet, the narrator notes the limiting association of French Guiana with the penal colony of Cayenne. Leveled against material imprisonment and also the enclosures of colonial stereotypes, Maldoror’s cinema is a work of openness and redress. She worked against imperial visualizations of the colonized “Other” that were always inevitably works of degradation and simplification, reducing the fullness of life to stereotypical sketches. In both Monangambée and Sambizanga, this redress is accomplished through Maldoror’s insistence on dwelling on the unremarkable small moments of daily life. The moment the couple are caught by the guard in Monangambée is also an incredibly lovely scene of intimate tenderness. A scene that I think about often comes early in Sambizanga, where the young Angolan couple are lying in bed with their small child, in a rare moment of rest, laughing and soothing him to sleep. These small pockets of intimacy are a great strength of Maldoror’s visual language.

In the narratives of her films as in her approach to her work, care and solidarity among the oppressed were crucial. Her film Un dessert pour Constance (1981), adapted from a novella by Daniel Boulanger, undermines with a deft touch of comedy racist caricatures attributed to Black people, while also poking fun at the calcified notions of cultural authenticity in France. The story follows two street sweepers in Paris, Bokolo and Mamadou, who participate in a cooking game show in order to raise funds for a sick friend to return home. Lighter than her other fictional films, here too Maldoror makes an emphatic point that strategies of daily co-survival are themselves already revolutionary actions. Though there is a silliness to their proceedings, Bokolo and Mamadou are dignified by their imaginative circumvention of racist blockades and determination to take care of one of their own.

Maldoror made a brief return to acting in her 1974 short film, Et les chiens se taisaient. Wearing a white lab coat, she played the role of the Mother from Césaire’s play of the same name, opposite Gabriel Glissant playing the Rebel character. Maldoror’s staging of an elided version of the play takes on an educational tenor, with the narrative frame of a man who works in the archives showing a group of Black children around the storage area of the Musée de l’Homme, an anthropology museum in Paris. Anthropology, the social sciences, and museums have all been preeminent ways for Western knowledge forms to crystallize the colonized “Other” under a studied and objectifying gaze. Maldoror pushes back against this by locating the film in the storage area, among the objects not considered ready or worthy of being seen. The Rebel character addresses these backroom masks and statues as he declaims the lines from Césaire’s play, which centers on the Haitian revolution and death of Toussaint Louverture. The line “I want to be the one who refuses the unacceptable” (Je veux être celui qui refuse l’inacceptable) rings loud, finding resonance with Maldoror’s own determination to generate channels of knowledge directed toward ending the atrocities of capitalist and colonial world order, to create otherwise. In this, Maldoror finds kinship with another of her interlocutors, Frantz Fanon, whose closing call at the end of his 1961 Les Damnés de la Terre — a crucial text for Maldoror — is for something new: new concepts and a new human.

Her later films, over a dozen documentaries, offer a filmography as bibliography, portraits of artists and thinkers that almost constitute a syllabus for a course on Black cultural workers. In the one on Léon-Gontran Damas, the Guyanese poet, Maldoror interviews some schoolgirls on the streets of Guiana. She asks them about the poets they like, and they rattle off Victor Hugo, Jean de La Fontaine, Charles Baudelaire, concluding that they don’t study Guyanese poets. The educational bent of Maldoror’s work was a corrective against these sorts of erasures and cultural deracinations. In her own words:

I play a cultural role as filmmaker. What interests me is to research films about African history, because our history has been written by others, not by us. Therefore, if I don’t take an interest in my own history, then who is going to do it? I think it is up to us to defend our own history, to make it known—with all of our qualities and faults, our hopes and despair.

Proving this commitment in her own films, Maldoror believed that African liberation movements were a question of struggles that not only mobilized soldiers but activated an entire education system. What she named a “combative and self-sufficient Africa” was one carrying forth and nurturing its cultural heritage. Maldoror’s expansive, flexible methodology and commitment to education spoke to an ethos of liberation also marked by a determination to adapt and the necessity of staying in motion. Not only was she consistently multidisciplinary, her project was ultimately one of broad cultural and political education, of consciousness-raising, of a militant dedication to study. This dedication to working against the damaging alienations of coloniality materialized in works of connection. In an interview, Maldoror highlighted how her husband, Mário Coelho Pinto de Andrade, and collaborators such as Amílcar Cabral had literature as their first point of connection, gathering primarily to read their poems, with political talk and affinities coming out of this shared hope and investment in cultural practices.

Maldoror’s daughters, Annouchka de Andrade and Henda Ducados, are carrying on the spirit of this work. De Andrade is currently the artistic director of the Amiens International Film Festival, a film festival focused on auteur cinema and African and South American films, while Ducados is the head of institutional relations for Total in Angola. Between them, they are working on projects to restore, preserve, and make available the work of both Sarah Maldoror and Mário de Andrade, undertaking precisely the work of liberatory education that so deeply animated their mother’s work. Maldoror’s work was one of revolutionary availability, a recognition of the porousness of every facet of efforts toward liberation. Maryse Condé, Chris Marker, Aimé Césaire, Jean Genet, Amílcar Cabral, Ousmane Sembène, Louis Aragon, Archie Schepp — this is a not even remotely complete list of her interlocutors. She made possible countless encounters, exchanges, inspirations, dialogues, where her role remains beneath the surface. Maldoror’s lifework was that of a resounding collective, a polyphonic practice that always sought to invite every voice into the room.
Under the peculiar circumstances of pandemic disconnection and virtual possibility, on May 12 Daniella Shreir, founder of the feminist film magazine Another Gaze, and I organized an event to mourn Maldoror’s passing and celebrate her work. Over the course of the event there were readings and discussions, an animated exchange that gathered 10 Black women variously involved in film. Annouchka and Henda not only were present but graced us with a generosity of knowledge and insight that could not have been more aligned with the spirit of their mother’s work. The anecdotes, fragments of minor episodes, and fond recollections were woven into what felt like a few hours of genuine connection.

More than any other aspect, the porous expansiveness of Maldoror’s cinema, extending far beyond the films and even the medium of film itself, has been the closest to me. In this new world order, our Maldoror event was one of many virtual gatherings. A fragment of a phrase from another that has stayed with me is Fred Moten saying, “Our capacity to share is inseparable from our capacity to survive.” This is exactly the spirit of Maldoror’s work. In her capacity as a filmmaker-historian-archivist-educator, she catalogued existing anti-colonial and revolutionary culture to share survival strategies, to remind us of what has already been done and may be mobilized toward imagining new possibilities of uprising. Even as a filmmaker, her contributions toward the struggle were sometimes beneath visible manifestation. Maldoror’s tireless commitment to the behind-the-scenes activates a reminder that not all work of community or liberation can be seen, and perhaps that not all of it should be. While their paths did not cross, Maldoror walked in a similar spirit to the community organizer and political agitator Ella Baker, a force of radical change whose efforts were often channeled more into the foundations than the stage. Theirs was a shared belief that there is much to teach and much to learn. Where Baker said, “Give light and people will find the way. . . . The struggle is eternal. The tribe increase. Somebody else carries on.” Maldoror assured us that “life carries on, whatever happens. You fall, another stands, and the fight continues.” There is so much more to be done, but the task is shared.