A Pioneer in Cinema
Sarah Maldoror left us on 13 April 2020, but her memory will live on always. Her cinematic footprint forever etched in history. She has joined the ancestors.
(Image. Leçon de cinéma with Sarah Maldoror, Colloquy: Francophone African Women Filmmakers: 40 years of cinema (1972-2012), Paris, the African Women in Cinema Collection)
An interview with Sarah Maldoror by Beti Ellerson at Fespaco in 1997, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Translated from French. Published in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television, Africa World Press, 2000.
While you are from the African Diaspora, you hold an important place in African cinema. Several of your films have focused on themes of struggle in Africa, such as the internationally acclaimed film Sambizanga. What is African cinema to you?
First, for me, African cinema does not exist. African cinema will exist when it is seen first in Africa. When Africans go to see African films, it can be said that an African cinema exists. For the moment, we are making films for others. That is the drama of African cinema.
You came to cinema during the decade of African independence. Much of your political awareness, which is reflected in your work, was sharpened during that period. What was it like during that time—the spirit of that era, the interests of African filmmakers at that time?
I came to cinema during the years of African independence. Before independence there was not an African cinema, and even now that there are African films, what do you really call an African cinema? Before there is a cinema that can be called African, there must first be a national cinema. And for there to be a national cinema, there must be cinema houses, there must be a sufficient number of African films. African films must be seen by Africans. They must go see their own films with their faults or whatever. There must first be an African public!
You are Guadeloupean, a woman of the African Diaspora who has made films in Africa, about Africa, as well as films with a focus on Africans from the Diaspora. Where do you situate yourself within African cinema?
Of course, I have done many films in Africa. But I feel, in the first place, that there are no borders. Let's get that straight! Whether it is in Africa, in Guadeloupe, or the United States. What I am saying is that cinema is the only art where there are no borders. Of course, I feel much closer to Africa than I do to the United States.
But at the same time, I am affected by the United States and its tremendous will to crush the world. I feel that on this point you Americans hold your own very well. Your cinema is everywhere. You have imposed your cinema. There is not one person in the world who does not know a Western or an American film in general. You have imposed yourself, and we must protect ourselves from you. You have invaded the world with your Westerns. And you have all the right to do so, but what can we do? Today, can anyone do without American cinema? No. We even go to see Malcolm X. You Black Americans have a cinema, you go to watch your own films as well as others, which is not our case. That is where your strength lies.
The themes that you treat in your films are in general what are called engagé. You have a commitment to the history of the liberation struggles of African peoples. Do you feel that this is your role as a filmmaker?
What do you want me to do? What films do you want me to make otherwise? When I see all these short films that are being made at the moment, I don't know if you have seen them, where the black woman is portrayed only as a whore. It's disgusting because the black woman is not that. There are women who work, there are women who are honest, there are women who fight for their children. But now, one has the impression that the more often black women take off their bras, that they are shown nude...I say no! Of course, some of that does exist. There are women who act that way. But that is not all there is. And that is what disturbs me!
How, then, do you see your role as filmmaker?
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!
You say that you are disappointed in the portrayal of African women in contemporary African films. Would you say that the representation of women in earlier African films was more positive?
At the present time, there seems to be a descent into hell. In earlier films, you would have never seen an African woman, a black woman naked. But now, it is difficult to find a film in which a woman has a particular reason for undressing. She's seems to undress for no apparent reason at all. I find that offensive. As a woman, I have had enough of these images. Other things must be shown. If the kinds of films that I do are what you call engagé...I think that without a political stand we will never get out of our present condition.
Although my purpose is not to bring up a drama of the past, I would like to talk about an event that happened several years ago and it appears that it has not yet been resolved. In 1991, FESPACO devoted a part of its platform to a workshop for African women in the cinema. Unfortunately, the tension between African and African diasporan women brought out quite a bit of emotion. You attended the conference. Could you talk about the events and how you felt about it?
We were told to leave because we were not considered African. We are in Africa, of course I am African. Certainly, my parents were Africans. Why am I Guadeloupean? Because my parents were sold into slavery. I am part of the group of Africans who were enslaved and deported. I am part of that deportation, but I am African, Antillian perhaps, but I could have also been born in America and be a Black American today. Therefore, when we were told to leave because we were not African, what could I have done otherwise?
Such a lack of culture! I don't know what else to say: I was stunned. There were women who came from the United States, they were told to leave. What difference is there between a Black American, an African, and me? We all come from the same land. I found it outrageous. That is why we will never get out of our condition, because we cannot accept ourselves. Voilá!
Yet you have done films in Africa, about African history. You are accorded the status of Angolan within the context of African cinema. How, then, can you be told that you are not African? What determines who is African?
Let me say this: yesterday I presented a film about Léon Damas. It is a film where Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire discuss the works of Damas, it was not in competition. Why it was not in competition, I have no idea. All the other films throughout the festival were shown three times, in cinema houses here in the center of town.
However, my film was screened in a faraway location, in an area that was extremely dangerous. There were three people in the cinema house. Three! Of course, I am grumbling, and no one can make me keep quiet. I was there to present my film to three people. However, every morning in the cinema houses where I went to see other documentaries, afterwards when someone asked, "Is the filmmaker present," the answer was nearly always "No." I am sent to the other end of the earth and I go, even to present to three people. I complain perhaps because I cannot accept this treatment, and because I am not accepted. I am not welcomed here at FESPACO.
Perhaps because you say what you think, because your films make very strong statements.
I don't know, but I will not be silenced. That is over. I am not of a generation that keeps quiet.
I see you as a pioneer in African cinema. You studied film in the ex-Soviet Union with Ousmane Sembene. You worked alongside the others who debuted some thirty years ago. What do you think about the evolution of African cinema?
To the contrary, it has gone backwards. I think that there has not been any criticism about the kinds of films that are being made. I am for anyone who wants to make a film to be able to do so. However, if we never say that a film is not good, then any and everybody will become a director, even if they have no talent. If they have nothing at all to offer they will make a film, and no one will say the film is bad. Because if they do, one will say, "It's because I am black you are saying this; therefore, you are racist."
I say no, I can make a film and I can fail. I failed because I made a bad film, I did not fail because I am black. Which means that now everybody is making films, yet there is no critique to judge if it succeeded or not. So what do we want? The more films we have that are average, mediocre, and minor, the more black culture will be stifled and crushed. And we are going to accept that? Well! Well!
You say that now anybody can be a filmmaker without there being a real film criticism that addresses the quality of the work. What do you think the criteria should be for making films? Should everyone go through film school? What specific training should one have?
Training is necessary. If you go to school, good for you, but if you do not, it does not matter. If you work as an assistant to, I don't know, Milos Forman or Spike Lee, you are learning your craft. That is actually the best school, learning is what is the most important. Whereas today, there is the attitude: I am going to make a film, no matter what, and here it is!
Do you feel that at the beginning of African cinema, for instance, during the time when you started, that there were some real differences in terms of approaches to filmmaking, compared to today?
I would say there were certain morals at that time. Voilá! We thought, perhaps mistakenly so, that we were respectful of a country that we did not know, of a history that was misunderstood. This history was to be respected; we believed in it. I think that is what is lacking now.
Do you think that filmmakers of today are more attracted to images and experiences, or things in general, that happen outside of their countries, and perhaps they are not as interested in their own history?
Of course. For instance, pornography is in fashion. They think: "This is what is being made in other films, therefore, let's put some pornography in our film."
Do you think that it comes from filmmakers wanting to attract the largest possible public?
Of course. It is very simple: I make a film about the great poets Léon Damas, Leopold Senghor, and Aimé Césaire, and no one comes to see it. I went to see a film early this morning where the African woman was portrayed as a prostitute and the cinema house was packed full. It is evident that the filmmaker who made this film has a public, and that I do not. That is also the reality. So who is right, he or I? The public or I? I think its that simple.
There is much discussion about the problems of the distribution and exhibition of African films in general. What are your thoughts?
There is no actual distribution of African films because Africans do not go to see African films. They will go see an American, French, German, or English film. But they will not go see African films because they find them inferior. And, as I said before, as long as there is not an African public who will go to see African films, there will not be an African cinema.
There may be African films, but there is not an African cinema. There is a Japanese cinema because the Japanese go to see Japanese films. There is an American cinema because Americans go to see their own films. So as long as we do not go to see our own films we cannot say there is an African cinema. It's not true.
And the exhibition of films?
There is none. You saw the condition of the cinema houses!
Do you have an audience for your films? What has been the reception of your latest film?
It depends. If the film is shown outside of Africa I do well, generally. I have very good reviews. The film about Léon Damas received awards everywhere. However, I do not follow my films, or else I would spend all my time at festivals; either they will receive an award or not. Then I go to Africa, and not only is it not chosen to be in competition, but also, on top of that, my film is screened on the other side of the world. And of course, that is disappointing. It is an insult. Moreover, it is a total disregard for Damas, a show of contempt for Césaire, indifference toward Senghor. It is disrespect for literature in general. I have no choice but to accept this, but I will fight nonetheless.
In spite of your disappointment about the state of African cinema, what do you see as the future of African cinema?
We must do greater films now. We must get away from the "calabash films," the "village films," the little stories. Now we must take history and look at it as it is, with its convictions, with its ideas, for or against its principles. We must do these films with space and greatness, really!
And your future projects? Are you working on a film at the moment?
I am working on a film about Louis Delgrès, who was a colonel and a violinist. You know, today everyone can study music. If you have children who want to play the piano or the violin, they can do so. Of course, if you have money, they can study whatever kind of music they want. But can you imagine in 1789, during that time, what it meant to be a violinist? Well, it was pretty extraordinary.
Delgrès fought with the French army against the English. When Napoléon reestablished slavery, he did not accept it. He fought and he lost because the French and the English—who previously fought against the French—joined together in a collaborative attempt to defeat the black army. This same black army fought against the English alongside the French army. I am going to do a film about this man.
Have you begun filming?
I am looking for funding.
Sarah Maldoror and Anne-Laure Folly during the Press Conference of Les Oubliées, FESPACO 1997. Published in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television, Africa World Press, 2000.
Sarah Maldoror: The first point that I want to make to Anne-Laure Folly is that your film is outstanding, it is fantastic. Because you are a woman, you have the respect for life, because you have courage. You could have been blown up a hundred times in those mines, but you were not, thank God. I think that you had courage to do this film. And it is very well done, and it gives one something to think about. And that these women who fight and suffer, who are hungry, could actually do a theatrical play, I find extraordinary. I regret that there are not more women who can be here to participate in this peace effort. Because if we women do not do it, it will not be the other African filmmakers, who, alas, are not at this conference.
Anne-Laure Folly: I would like first to thank Sarah, she inspired me to do this film. She did a film called Sambizanga, which in my opinion is one of the masterpieces of African cinema. When I saw it, I had a desire to make a film thirty years later, about Angola. She cleared the way by showing the Angolan war interpreted from the perspective of a woman. Mine is not a pioneering approach; she has already done that.
Also read on the African Women in Cinema Blog :
REFLECTIONS ON Another Gaze presents: The Legacies of Sarah Maldoror (1929–2020) - 12 May 2020
Sarah Maldoror: Behind the cloud | Derrière le nuage
Remember Sarah Maldoror : A Pioneer in Cinema
Pionnière cinéaste Sarah Maldoror nous a quitté | Pioneer cineaste Sarah Maldoror has passed away (1929 - 2020)
Sarah Maldoror: Role Model and Pioneer