Close up
Sarah Maldoror
@Henrich Vöckel

The loss of Sarah Maldoror, pioneer of pan-African cinema

The voice of the persecuted and the rebels, the film maker Sarah Maldoror, a pioneer of pan-African cinema, died on 13 April 2020 as a result of the coronavirus. Her luminous cinematographic work of more than 40 films is the reflection of a valiant fighter, curious about everything, generous, irreverent, championing others who gloriously carried poetry beyond all borders.

Updated on 30/04/2020

5 min

Born on 19 July 1929 to a Guadeloupean father and a mother from the south-west, she chose the name Maldoror as her artist’s name in tribute to the surrealist poet Lautréamont.

For her whole life, her actions and choices echoed that first move. After her theatre debut, she founded Les Griots in 1956, the first troupe made up of African and Afro-Caribbean actors "to end the role of maid", she said, and "to promote black artists and writers". The poster for their first stage show Huis clos (Behind Closed Doors) was designed by Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. The Aimé Césaire play La tragédie du Roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christophe) and Les Nègres (The Negroes) by Jean Genet and directed by Roger Blain followed. This theatrical dimension and her desire to pass on other cultures were at the heart of her conception of creation.

In 1961, Sarah Maldoror went to Moscow to study film under the direction of Mark Donskoi. There she learned about framing design, teamwork and to be constantly anticipating the unexpected: "Always be ready to capture what might be behind the cloud," she said.

After this Soviet episode, she joined the pioneers of African liberation movements in Guinea, Algeria and Guinea-Bissau alongside her partner Mario de Andrade, an Angolan poet and politician who was the founder of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and the country's first president.

This political dimension is central to her work. She liked to repeat that “For many African film makers, cinema is a tool of revolution, a political education to transform consciences. It was part of the emergence of a Third World cinema seeking to decolonise thought to encourage radical changes in society.”

Film debut in Algiers

It was in Algiers that she made her film debut alongside Gilo Pontecorvo with La Bataille d’Alger (The Battle of Algiers, 1965), then William Klein with the Festival panafricain d’Alger (Pan-African Festival of Algiers, 1969).

Her first film Monangambee (1969), adapted from Luandino Vieira’s short story "Mateus’ Complet”, deals with the misunderstanding between the colonizer and the colonized. Enhanced by the music of Chicago Art Ensemble this masterpiece won several awards, including Best Director at the Carthage Film Festival.

In Sambizanga (1972) – with a script by Maurice Pons and Mario de Andrade – she charts the struggle of the Angolan liberation movement through the political journey of a woman whose husband dies under torture in prison. This award-winning film is a major work of African cinema and established her international reputation as a committed artist.

Based in Paris, she favoured the documentary, which allowed her to portray artists (Ana Mercedes Hoyos), poets (Aimé Césaire, Leon G. Damas) and pioneers (Toto Bissainthe), as the horizon needed to rehabilitate black history and its most striking figures, and more besides. These portraits of Miro, Louis Aragon and Emmanuel Ungaro testify to her brilliant eclecticism.

Contre les intolérances et les stigmatisations

Fréderic Mitterrand said “she contributed significantly to filling the gap in images of African women in front of and behind the camera”.

Sarah Maldoror focused her attention on fighting intolerance and stigmatization of all kinds (Un dessert pour Constance or A Dessert for Constance based on a short story by Daniel Boulanger) and placed fundamental importance on solidarity among the oppressed, political repression, and culture as the only means of elevating a society.

In her last public appearance at the Reina Sofia Museum, which honoured her in Madrid in May 2019, she reiterated that it was necessary for many children to go to the cinema and read poetry from a young age to build a fairer world.


L'institut français, LAB