The Mother of African Cinema: Sarah Maldoror

May 31, 2020   •   By Celluloid Liberation Front

SARAH MALDOROR WAS BORN Sarah Ducados in 1929 from a Guadeloupean father and a French mother in Gers, southwestern France. In spite of her nationality, she will be remembered as the mother of African cinema. Against patrilinear conventions she had changed her family name to Maldoror, after the unruly character of Comte de Lautréamont’s poetic 1868 novel. The eponymous character of Les Chants de Maldoror is a misotheistic figure who renounces conventional morality to plunge into the “uncharted, perilous wastelands” of narrative transgression. Sarah Maldoror’s transgressions, though, were going to be literal, not literary, and collective, not individual.

In 1956, Maldoror founded, along with the Ivorian filmmaker Timité Bassori, Ababacar Samb Makharam, and Toto Bissainthe, the first Black theater company in France: Les Griots. The poster of their first staged play, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (Huis Clos, 1944), was designed by the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. Les Griots would stage plays by Jean Genet, Sartre, John Millington Synge, Molière, and authors drawn from the anthology of Black poetry published by Présence Africaine, a Paris-based Pan-African magazine and publishing house. At the inaugural Festival mondial des arts nègres (World Festival of Black Arts), 1966 in Dakar, Senegal, the company staged Aimé Césaire’s play The Tragedy of King Christophe (La Tragédie du roi Christophe, 1963) to popular acclaim, though by then Maldoror had already moved on. Césaire nevertheless had a profound impact on Maldoror’s artistic and political life, so much so that she would realize three documentaries about him: in 1976 (Aimé Césaire: Un homme une terre), in 1987 (Aimé Césaire: Le masque de mots), and in 2009, her last film, Eia pour Césaire. She also directed and acted in a short TV play adapted from Césaire’s Et les chiens se taisaient (1946).

Sarah Maldoror’s passage from theater to cinema was occasioned by a screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), “an incredible film I’ve returned to multiple times over the years,” she told Raquel Schefer in an interview. [1] In the early 1960s, benefiting from one of the scholarships the Soviet Union was granting to students from the so-called Third World (a political category, since Maldoror was a French citizen), she found herself studying at Vladimir Gardin’s film school (now the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) in Moscow, under Mark Donskoy. The same class was attended by Ousmane Sembène, one of the founding fathers of African cinema.

The Tricontinental winds of revolution landed Maldoror in Algeria, then the leading lady of anticolonial struggles. After eight years of armed struggle, France and the left-wing Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) had agreed on a cease-fire that put an end to the Algerian War (1954–’62) — a de facto victory for the FLN that resulted in Algerian independence and inspired a whole continent and beyond. Algiers, the Algerian capital, was in the post-independence period a central for self-proclaimed liberation movements worldwide, granting asylum, military training, and internationalist solidarity to a panoply of organizations: from Angolan freedom fighters to Palestinian fedayeen, Black Panthers to Quebecois independentists, Brazilian dissidents to Viet Cong, far-left German terrorists to South African militants. In the revolutionary plans of the newly liberated country, culture was to play a crucial role in the emancipation from colonial subordination (“Every effort is made to bring the colonized person to admit the inferiority of his culture,” Frantz Fanon had decried in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth).

It was, in fact, with the support of the FLN that Sarah Maldoror made her first short film. After having worked as an assistant to Gillo Pontecorvo on The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, 1966), she directed Monangambee in 1968. Adapted from a short story by José Luandino Vieira with the help of Maldoror’s romantic accomplice Mário Pinto de Andrade (one of the founders of the Angolan Communist Party and of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola [MPLA]), the film tells the story of a woman visiting her husband in prison. Due to a linguistic misunderstanding regarding the delivery of a “completo” (a three-course menu for Angolans, a three-piece suit for the Portuguese), the man will be tortured by the guards under suspicion he was planning an escape. Monangambee is Angolan for “white death,” the war cry that natives would holler upon seeing the Portuguese approaching, and in the film stands for the impossibility of dialogue between colonized and colonizers. Set in Angola but entirely shot in Algeria and spoken in French, Maldoror’s opera prima is, among other things, the cinematographic rendition of internationalism and its determination to unite the anticolonial front across national and linguistic borders.

Maldoror went on to assist William Klein on The Pan-African Festival of Algiers (Festival panafricain d’Alger, 1969) before shooting her first feature-length film. Shot in the liberated areas of Guinea-Bissau when the West African country was still fighting against Portuguese occupation, Guns for Banta (Des fusils pour Banta, 1970) was an Algerian-Bissau-Guinean co-production that tells the story of a woman involved in the armed struggle. For reasons that remain unclear to these days, the film was seized by the Algerian authorities and the director expelled from the country. Considered lost, this mythical film was the subject of Foreword to Guns for Banta (Préface à Des fusils pour Banta, 2011), a documentary short by Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc which investigates its story and the many mysteries still surrounding it.

In 1972, the MPLA produced her second feature film, Sambizanga, a film that lucidly exposes the material structure of colonialism while adhering to the traditional basis of storytelling. Shot in Congo-Brazzaville but set, once again, in Angola, the film follows a woman and her newborn as they head to the Angolan capital of Luanda, where her man has been imprisoned for having joined the resistance. Opening the film are images of Black workers extracting stones in a quarry, reminding the viewer that the colonial encounter is always mediated by economic exploitation. A point made even clearer by one of the protagonists later in the film when he claims “there are no Whites, neither Mulattos nor Blacks. Only the Rich and the Poor. The Rich are the Poor’s enemies, they see to it that the Poor stay poor.” Another man objects: “But the Rich give work, money, and charity to the Poor. Without the Rich, the Poor’d have no work!” To which the man rebuts: “No! The Rich give in a way that keeps the Poor poor and work to keep the Rich rich. If there were no Rich, there’d be no Poor. We would all be the same.” “It’s the labor of the Poor that earns the Rich money,” he concludes. Though didactic it may sound, this exchange sublimates the political thought of anticolonial thinkers such as Amílcar Cabral, who had presciently sensed the political limits of nationalism, which Frantz Fanon would have called “the pitfalls of national consciousness.”

None was in a better position than Sarah Maldoror, a Euro-Caribbean filmmaker trained in the Soviet Union, to cinematically espouse and articulate such views. Sambizanga was awarded a 1972 Tanit d’or — the grand prize at the Journées cinématographiques de Carthage, the same film festival where Maldoror had won the Best Director award for Monangambee three years earlier. Its founder, Tahar Cheriaa, had written a magisterial book on African cinema, Écrans d’abondance ou cinémas de libération en Afrique? (1968), where he’d investigated and denounced the colonial nature of film distribution throughout Africa and the Arab world. Culture was no mere accessory to the struggle, it was a battlefield. The forces of neocolonialism weren’t going to leave the richest continent on earth alone and the subjugation of imagination played a fundamental role in the reactionary phase that followed anticolonialism. Newly independent states were culturally and economically recolonized, plundered, and sabotaged, progressive leaders methodically taken out with the help of an unscrupulous, native bourgeoisie. Liberation, it turned out, was going to be a constant struggle.

Sarah Maldoror continued hers from Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in France, where she relocated sometime in the 1970s and died on April 13 this year from COVID-19 complications. Like many filmmakers of her rebellious generation, TV provided a lifeline and a space to experiment, subvert, and criticize. She approached the small screen with the same revolutionary rigor that had characterized her earlier, cinematic work. Whether filming the Spanish painter Joan Miró in occasion of an exhibition dedicated to him or interviewing her mentor Aimé Césaire, Maldoror never surrendered to the homologating protocols of commissioned television. The Parisian banlieue or the Angolan maquis were in her mind and films, part of the same front against European colonialism and its neoliberal permutations.

Instead of retreating into the safe haven of nostalgia, she kept fighting in a world heading in the opposite direction she and her comrades had fought for. Exemplary in this regard is her TV movie Le passager du Tassili (1987), almost entirely set on the titular boat shipping the protagonist Omar (Lounès Tazairt) back to France after a brief vacation in his native Algeria. Shot two decades after independence, the film is a frank, at times even humorous look at the contradictions, shortcomings, and challenges of the country in relation to its former colonial master. It’s in the wretched of the French metropolis that the director saw the natural successors of the anticolonial fighters she had met and filmed in Africa. Memorable is the duet in Scala Milan AC (2003), a symphony of multiethnic antagonism, between a group of banlieusards (he or she who's from the ghetto) from Saint-Denis and African-American jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, whom Maldoror had filmed decades earlier in Algiers during the Pan-African festival, which Shepp had closed with a legendary performance accompanied by Touareg percussionists.

Satire and irony too found their way into Sarah Maldoror’s work, her 1981 film Un dessert pour Constance being a case in point. The film pokes fun at the elitist nature of French haute cuisine as seen, practiced, and contaminated by a group of African street cleaners in Paris. Maldoror had also accompanied Chris Marker in Guinea-Bissau for the shooting of his masterpiece Sans Soleil (1983), onto which images of Cabral’s guerrilla and words are enshrined. In 1982, Maldoror made one of her more interesting, if hard to find films: L’hôpital de Leningrad, adapted from a reflection the Joseph Stalin–critical Victor Lvovich Kibalchich had written shortly before his suspicious 1947 death (published in the French magazine Preuves in 1953 under his pseudonym Victor Serge), denouncing the condition of patients upon visiting a psychiatric hospital in 1932 Leningrad. The film featured Anne Wiazemsky and Roger Blin, the famed French playwright who had been a proactive supporter of Les Griots back in the days.

Apart from the Togolose short documentary Sarah Maldoror ou la nostalgie de l’utopie (1999) by Anne-Laure Folly, Maldoror’s pivotal role in the history of world cinema remains largely unsung. A fate not dissimilar from that of her African colleagues Flora Gomes, Désiré Écaré, Josefina Lopes Crato, Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa, Sana Na N’Hada, Lionel Ngakane, Med Hondo, Moustapha Alassane, Ola Balogun, Oumarou Ganda, José Bolama Cobumba, Ababacar Samb Makharam, Haile Gerima, and others. Pioneers of a cinema that, in more ways than one, still needs to see the light of day.


Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name whose writing is visible to the naked eye from outer space. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands.


[1] The interview, translated into Portuguese, appeared in the volume Angola: O Nascimento de Uma Nação edited by Maria do Carmo Piçarra.