The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.

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13 April 2024

Sarah Maldoror Lives (1929-2020) and Beyond


Sarah Maldoror Lives (1929-2020) and Beyond
Reflections by Beti Ellerson
Photo by Beti Ellerson*
 
Sarah Maldoror, who I respectfully called the matriarch of African cinema, is a foremother and cinematic ancestor since 2020. Beyond the iconic image of Sarah Maldoror, the politically activist filmmaker, one finds the intersectionality of her creative process, the multiple dimensionalities of her life and her vision of the world.
 
I was introduced to Sarah Maldoror in the early 1990s when doing graduate work in African Studies. I met her at Fespaco in 1997, during which I interviewed her for my post-doctoral research project on African women in cinema.
 
She uttered these words to Jadot Sezirahiga during an interview in 1995:

“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”.

I found my place among these women, as researcher and scholar of African women in cinema. She set the path for me, I have followed her and her work ever since.
 
She then said to me in 1997:
 
“My role as filmmaker is cultural. What interests me is culture, to research films about African history, because our history has been written by others and 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. It is up to us to make it known, with all our qualities and faults, our hopes and despair—it is our role to do it!”
 
Embodied in these words is a corpus of work that exemplifies her world-making, as well as her efforts to defend the history of Africa, the Diaspora, to tell their stories. A cinematic history that reflects Sarah Maldoror’s political, cinematic and cultural journey, as well as her self-making on her personal journey at the intersection of these experiences.
 
 
Sarah’s gaze
 
“We must fight against the gaze of the other, it can be terrible.”
 
“We had our gaze on others; we were no longer the ‘gazed-upon’.”

 
These two citations, uttered in different contexts, describe Sarah’s desire to control her image and that of Africa and people of African descent. To redefine herself, to tell her history and that of African and Afro-descendent peoples.

Her reinvention of self unfolds in Paris in the late 1940s through the 1950s, she is reborn as Sarah Maldoror. Songs of Maldoror by Isidore Ducasse alias le Comte de Lautréamont is the impetus to her renaissance. Her identity reimagined, she is drawn to the theater, cofounding Les Griots, whose aim is to redefine and promote realistic black representations on the stage. She discovers Africa, through the cultural institution, Présence Africaine, and hence a pivotal moment in her life. At the same time Présence Africaine is a metaphor for Sarah’s journey towards Africa, after which it would be forever present in her thoughts and action. She said in a tribute to Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, that through his work she understood the importance of being in touch with one’s culture in order to be strengthened by the continual movement of one’s thoughts to and from Africa. At the same time she was simultaneously Pan African and a woman beyond borders, an identity that she would embody throughout her life.
 
 
Behind the cloud
 
"Always be ready to seize what may be behind the cloud".
 
In many ways this idea of being ready for whatever may be behind the cloud, is symbolic of Sarah’s journey. The leitmotif of Sarah’s process: grabbing the moment, while being prepared for that which is not yet known, the unexpected. Sarah recalls when studying with Mark Donskoi while in Moscow, being encouraged to seek out the paintings of artists, and through these paintings he taught her to see things that she would not otherwise see: to always be ready to seize what may be behind the cloud.
 
 
Women in the struggle
 
Sarah’s positionality as a woman and her view of women’s place in the struggle in general may be summed up in three emblematic quotes:
 
"I am one of those modern women who try to combine work and family life, and just like it is for all the others, it's a problem for me. Children need a home and a mother. That's why I try to prepare and edit my films in Paris during the long summer vacation when the children are free and can come along."
 
“I…offer work to as many women as possible during the time I’m shooting my films. You have to support those women who want to work with film.”
 
“More importantly, the participation of women had to be shown. Wars will only end if women take part in making it happen. They don’t have to hold a bazooka, but they have to be present”.

Sarah’s life in the struggle is exemplary of the interplay of the personal and political: mother, companion, artist, filmmaker, who accompanied her partner, Angolan liberation leader Mario de Andrade in the struggle, and raised her daughters, Annouchka de Andrade and Henda Ducados within an environment of political engagement, at the intersection of politics and everyday life, as an integral part of the journey towards African liberation. She instilled in them an appreciation of cinema and the arts. Essential to this understanding was how her films contributed to an awareness of African liberation struggles, to understand the role that individuals play and the ways that ordinary people contribute to the liberation of Africa. The significance of being part of that struggle, and hence, this attitude was incorporated in the everyday life of the family.

 
A family in the struggle
 
Using the camera as a weapon, Sarah’s earlier works focused on armed struggles, striving to show the world Africa’s fight for liberation. At the same time reflecting the everydayness of life during the independence movements. Everyone has her or his role in the resistance, as strategist, foot soldier distributing pamphlets, runner of vital information, watchman, mothers protecting their sons in hiding, revealing secrets that put their own lives at risk, all indicative of the myriad ways that women actively participate in the struggle. Employing the camera as a cultural and political weapon continued throughout her cinematic journey, reflected in all of her films and the choice of themes.
 
Henda describes her parents’ relationship as a great love story, the love that Sarah and Mario had for each other and how it extended to their struggle towards African independences. Hence, there was a parallel journey at the same time as artists, filmmaker, poet, writer, somewhere in that was also a love story, which perhaps lays, untold, in the interstices of Sarah’s story. And that love story extended to the entire family. Sarah instilled in Annouchka and Henda, the attitude that as a family they were all in the struggle, the exigencies of a family of both artists and activists required sacrifice and endurance.
 
Their story reflects the cultural, social and political journey of a family-in-the-struggle, how through Sarah and Mario’s commitment to each other and the struggle, the family itself was strengthened, even in Mario’s physical absence.
 
 
Filmmaking at the intersection of the arts
 
“I cannot imagine a film without music and text, they are very important.”
 
“My images are poetic because I need this. I have never made a film without first going to the Louvre or some other museum.”
 
“I see beauty everywhere, even in the prison. I was there to make a documentary about Damas and I saw the prison and fell in love with it. I thought that the poem would go very well with that image.”

 
Sarah’s work represents the politics of art, at the intersection of music, literature, poetry, song, theater, paintings. Her repertoire of portraits of artists includes of course Aimé Cesaire, as well as Leopold Senghor, Toto Bissainthe, Assia Djebar, Christiane Diop of Présence Africaine, Edouard Glissant, to name a few African and Diasporan artists who were during their life or continue to be socially, politically and socially engaged through their art. Her film Leon G. Damas, is a compelling example. As the voice of Damas recites his poem “Nameless nights”, Paul Robeson's voice sings “There’s a man going round taking names”, and powerful audial metaphors accompany an equally formidable symbol of a prison—of subjugation. Damas’ nameless nights, Robeson's man taking names, juxtaposed to images of enslavement—a startling contrast to Sarah Maldoror’s journey, of name-giving, of liberation cinema.   
 
 
 
Beyond Borders
 
“I’m against all forms of nationalism…Nationalities and borders between countries have to disappear. Besides this, the color of a person’s skin is of no interest to me. What’s important is what that person is doing.”
 
“I will not say, I feel Guadeloupian, African, French, wherever I am, it suits me. I agree with Césaire: today, there is no race, there are people.”

 
Sarah Maldoror’s words highlight her universalistic world view. At the start of her renaissance, she intermingled with people throughout Africa and the Diaspora. Her initial border crossing took her to Africa, then to study filmmaking in Moscow, and back to Africa. Upon her return to France, her films and the people with whom she engaged at the intersection of culture, politics and art, continued to reflect her idea of a world beyond borders, race and ethnicity. While her films that focused on African liberation struggles and her film portraits of artists and intellectual from Africa and the Diaspora are well known, she also focused on works about other artists and activists, such as Louis Aragon, Paul Claudel, Alberto Carlisky, Vlady, among others.
 
 
Intergenerational dialogue
 
In the short film Scala Milan A.C., an intergeneration dialogue develops between a group of youth and Archie Shepp, who introduces them to music, to jazz. While they are interested in going to Milan because of its soccer team, Shepp opens their world to the idea of also exploring theater and art. A veritable intergenerational project with Sarah as director and Agnès Varda as producer.
 
Scala Milan A.C. combines all the arts: theater, music, film, dance, while presenting a socially-committed message--that beyond the soccer dreams of the working-class youth, Milan is also a site of culture, the opera for instance. One finds many of the ideas that Sarah has advocated: being prepared for the unexpected, educating the youth to appreciate the arts, the intersection of the arts, as well as a continuation of how she raised her daughters.
 
 
Continuing Sarah’s legacy
 
Sarah Maldoror leaves to the world a vast repository of information and materials in the form of films, papers, documents, letters, posters, books, and of course there are other treasures in this trove of archival materials. Since Sarah’s passing, her eldest daughter, Annouckhka has taken on the full-time duties of the guardian of the temple. Which requires organizing projects for exhibition, interviewing in order to promote Sarah’s works. And of course, the immeasurable time devoted to classifying, sorting, cataloguing. There is also the heritage of Mario de Andrade. So, it’s about a couple, these two people who came together and worked together, but they both individually have their own legacy. The Friends of Sarah Maldoror and Mario de Andrade, created in 2019 and located in Saint-Seine-Denis, brings the two together, as a structure designed to safeguard both of these legacies.

 
Text drawn from diverse published interviews with Sarah Maldoror, Annouchka de Andrade and Henda Ducados.

*Sarah Maldoror during Masterclass moderated by Brigitte Rollet at the BNF. Francophone African Women Filmmakers: 40 years of cinema (1972-2012)" - Paris, 23-24 November 2012.2012)

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