Amália Rodrigues in Africa
Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999) was responsible for the popularization of fado in her own country and in...
Sarah Ducados, known as Sarah Maldoror, is considered the first black woman to make films in 1960s Africa, although other directors, such as the documentary maker Thérèse Sita-Bella, were contemporary to her. Her best known feature film, Sambizanga (1972), was equally important in the history of Angolan cinema, since the narrative, adapted from a book by the Angolan writer Luandino Vieira, deals with an episode from the struggle for independence from Portuguese colonialism. She started her career in France, where she continues to direct films, working in television and acting in the public sphere in favor of immigration, the black community, and women. A striking characteristic of her films is the dialogue with literature, such as short stories, novels, and poetry, and the arts in general.
Sarah Maldoror does not claim any nationality, though she has called herself African in various interviews:
"I feel at home everywhere. I am from everywhere and nowhere. My ancestors were slaves. In my case, this makes things more difficult. The Antilleans accuse me of not living in the Antilles, the Africans say that I was not born on the African continent, and the French criticize me for not being like them."1
Her personal and professional trajectory highlight her intense international transit, interlacing different national cinematographies and political experiences.
Born in 1929, daughter of a French mother and an immigrant father from the Guadeloupe islands in the Caribbean. In the critical discussion of her work there is no consensus about where she was born, oscillating between Condom, in Gers, France, more credible in our view, and the same country as her father. On one webpage she even stated one nationality (French) and in a separate text alongside another (Guadeloupe). Her artistic name was inspired by The Songs of Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror) (1869), a book by Isidore Ducasse, Count of Lautréamont.
Her artistic career began in the theater. In 1956, she helped found the Compagnie d'Art Dramatique des Griots, known as Les Griots, and presided it during its early years. The core of the collective was formed by the Haitian singer Toto Bissainthe, the immigrant from the Gold Coast Timité Bassori, and the Senegalese Ababacar Samb Makharam, as well as Maldoror and later Robert Liensol, from Guadeloupe. They all participated in events organized by the journal Présence Africaine in Paris, were recognized followers of Alioune Diop, director of that organization, and were close to the intellectual movement Négritude, whose exponents were Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas, and Leopoldo Sendar Séngor. The lack of black representativity on the Parisian stage, the creation of a modern theater, and a theater school for blacks were the main reasons for forming the company.
The group learned about staging theater in Centre d'apprentissage d'art dramatique and in the theater of Foyer de l'École de médecine, and staged several plays, such as Huis clos by Jean-Paul Sartre, Don Juan by Molière, L'Ombre de la ravine (In the Shadow of the Glen) by John Millington Synge, L'Invité by Pierre de Pouchkine, La Fille des dieux by Abdou Anta Ka and Les paravents by Jean Genet, as well as presenting recitals of poetry by black authors published by the magazine Présence Africaine, always with the support of the director Roger Blin. Les Griots acted in various European spaces and with the staging of Les nègres, also by Genet, obtained recognition in theatrical spheres. The group ended in 1964 after controversies over the staging of a recently written play by Aimé Césaire, La tragédie du Roi Christophe, which ended up the responsibility of another theater company. Her experience in the theater brought Sarah Maldoror close to the universe of African and Antillean immigrant artists and intellectuals, and many of whom acted in or appeared in her films years later.
Encouraged by people close to the documentary maker Chris Marker, the young artist asked for and received a grant to study cinema in Moscow. The grants were part of the Soviet regime's diplomatic strategy of approximation with African countries which began at the end of the 1950s. She studied between 1961 and 1962, alongside the Senegalese Ousmane Sémbène, in the prestigious National Institute of Cinematography of the Soviet Union (VGIK), with the principal references being the Soviets Sergei Gerassimov and, more especially, Mark Donskoi. Both students accompanied the production of Donskoi's Hello Children (1962). In 1956, after finishing the Soviet course and alongside her partner Mário Pinto de Andrade, an intellectual and one of the founders of the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Sarah Maldoror travelled to France, Guinea-Conakry, Morocco, Tunisia and, especially, Algeria. In the latter country, Maldoror assisted, as "a type of intern" according to her, the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo in the filming of the lauded The Battle of Algiers (1966). Sarah also collaborated in making the Algerian documentary Elles (1966), by Ahmed Lallem, a film dedicated to young post-revolution Algerian women. It is worth noting that both productions highlighted women in the process of fighting colonialism and organizing the post-independence nation.
The first film directed by Sarah Maldoror was Monangambeee (1968), an adaptation of O fato completo de Lucas Matesso by Luandino Vieira, with the help of Mário Pinto de Andrade and Serge Michel. The text was written in Angola while Vieira was in prison, since he had been condemned for a political crime by the Salazar regime in 1961. Its title refers to the expression used to refer to peasants in the Portuguese colonies in Africa, as well as António Jacinto's poem Monangamba, written in the same year as the short story. It is about the torture of a young man (Matesso) arrested by the forces of Portuguese colonialism. The young man's partner visits him and promises to bring him a "completo," which in the local culture refers to a plate of food with fish, as explained in the brief titles opening the film. One of the torturers hears the message and together with another Portuguese soldier attacks Matesso to get some information about the opposition groups, since he associated the term with some secret or type of help for him. The tortured man, lacking any strength after the sessions of mistreatment, commemorates his fragile survival in the prison bed.
The story shows the brutality of colonialism on the body of the young man. What was been written about the film seen it as a landmark in the history of Angola, due to the literary references from which it emerged and the fact that it represented the then colony in film festivals. However, there are no explicit mentions of the territory or the MPLA, and the portrait of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar in the torture room seeks to show the case as paradigmatic for the understanding of Portuguese colonialism. According to Maldoror, the film portrays the incomprehension of different cultures: "The Portuguese do not understand the meaning of 'completo' because they do not know the value of words. They do not know the value of words in the language of another."2
Filming took place close to Algiers, capital of Algeria, the country which funded the production of the short film. Maldoror recruited non-professional actors, such as the Cape Verdean economist Elisa Andrade, a member of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC); only Mohamed Zinet had worked in the area since he had acted in The Battle of Algiers. The soundtrack was by Art Ensemble of Chicago, whom Maldoror had met when they had played on the streets of Paris. Shown at the end of the film were photographs of black soldiers taken by Augusta Conchiglia, who, alongside Stefano di Stefani, had made a documentary about the MPLA guerillas entitled A propósito de Angola (1973). Jacqueline Meppiel, a French editor, intermediated the contact between Maldoror and the photographer.
Regarding the choice of the cast, Maldoror faced negative opinions about the beauty of the black actress Elisa Andrade, whom she defended:
"When the heroine of a French or American film is beautiful, there is no problem, but if the heroine is African, she cannot be... I found a woman of great sensitivity and in addition to this, beautiful. I should have given up on here because she was black? Of course not."3
Monangambeee was shown in 1970 at the XIIIe Journées internationales de court métrage de Tours and won an award at the 2ème Festival International du Film d'Expression Française in Dinard, the 3ème Festival International des Journées Cinématographiques of Carthage (Critics Prize), the Festival Panafricaine du Cinéma de Ougadougou (a Bronze Tanit in the short film category), and was exhibited in 1971 in the Filmmakers Fortnight at the Festival of Cannes, representing Angola.
In 1969, Sarah Maldoror remained in Algeria and worked on the filming of Festival panafricain d\'Alger (1969) by William Klein. The documentary portrays the event, considered important as it brought together distinct political and military groups which fought against colonialism and interference by rich countries in recently independent countries. Appearing as 'assistants' for the film were Maldoror, as well as Ahmed Lallem and Jacqueline Meppiel, figures from Algerian and French cinema close to her.
Fuzis para Banta (1971) was a feature length film produced in the liberated zones by PAIGC and on Bijagos Island in Guiné-Bissau in 1970, ordered by the National Agency of Commerce and the Cinematographic Agency of Algeria (ONCIC). After the filming was completed the reels of film were apprehended by the Algerian army due to the director's disagreement with army officers: "I had the audacity to tell a coronel that the Algerian army was worth nothing."4 There are reports showing the clear censorship of the film, because the military expected a more militant film. The apprehended film is missing. In an interview with the director Mathieu Abonnenc, he stated:
[...] I was there to make a film, and not to become part of the army. They treated me like a soldier and I did not want to be one. Above all the editing had to be done with them and I did not want to do this because I wanted to preserve my freedom and knew I would not be free. I wanted to edit it in Paris and would not be free if I did it with them. This was clear.5
The film told the trajectory of the guerrilla Awa, who represented the first woman in Portuguese Guinea to die fighting, constituting the founding myth of the local guerrillas, although in the memories of activists there appears the story of Canhe Na N'Tuguê, who had been tortured and murdered by the Portuguese. It highlighted female protagonism in armed combat, a territory considered as predominantly masculine, which may have bothered the censors. Once again the actors were not professionals and the technical team was Algerian. A friend of Sarah Maldoror's, the photographer Suzanne Lipinska registered some images of the filming, which occurred in the first half of 1970, in the middle of the shelling of villages by the colonialists. Mário Pinto de Andrade's archive holds some of the correspondence which show some of the problems experienced by his partner. In a letter to Agostinho Neto, dated 31 October 1970, Andrade reports that "Although Sarah has difficulties here [Algiers] to finish the editing of the film she made in the maquis of Guinea, I believe that she can face the near future with a certain optimism." In another letter, received from Amílcar Cabral and dated 9 December 1970, the founder of PAIGC told Andrade that "With Turpin I will do everything for 'Banta' to be finished." On her part, in an interview in which she let it be understood that Fuzis para Banta was completed, Maldoror complained about the non-distribution of the film, denouncing the lack of interest of the French in Africa:
"Le vrai problème, en ce que me concerne, c'est que les Français ne s'intéressent pas à l'Afrique australe. Le télé, la 2 CV, les vacances, mais certainement pás l'Angola ou la Guinée-Bissau. [...] Car il existe un moyen de censure plus efficace que l'interdiction, c'est l'absence de distribution."6
Despite the problems experienced in Algeria, Maldoror continued with her projects. After making short documentaries in France, which will be commented on below, she directed the fictional feature film Sambizanga (1972). This was an adaptation of another text by Luandino Vieira, A vida real de Domingos Xavier, written during 1961 and begun shortly after MPLA's attacks on Angolan prisons on 4 February, a date celebrated by the party, and completed in prison. Mário Pinto de Andrade, as well as publishing a version in French ten years later, wrote the film script with the French journalist and novelist Maurice Pons. However, the narrative base was developed in a long distance collaboration between the director and writer, since the latter was prevented from leaving Portugal. The title of the film, like Monangambeee, is different from the text which gave rise to the report and, moreover, refers to the peripheral neighborhood of Luanda where the armed attack by MPLA took place.
The plot is divided into three narrative lines which do not intersect: the torture and death of the tractor driver Domingos Xavier, accused of belonging to a political group opposed to colonialism (a reference to the MPLA), his wife Maria's search for her partner in different prisons in Luanda, and the clandestine organization which tried to identify the prisoner and even save him. The first follows the brutality with which prisoners were treated in Monangambeee; Maria's trajectory is marked by the neglect of official authorities and the solidarity of the poor men and women from the settlements; while the actions of the clandestine organization emphasize the slogans of the group and underground contacts. Finally, Domingos Xavier is murdered, his wife consoled by poor women, while the members of the political organization celebrate the rectitude of the prisoner's character, who did not denounce the group to the Portuguese.
Used to didactic filmographies produced by engaged filmmakers from the "Third World," film critics and political activists again refuted the beauty of the lead female actor, Elisa Andrade, and the "political ambiguity" of Sambizanga, which did not privilege the guerrilla organization against colonialism, which was seen as a "defect" of the political aspect of the work. Other readings emphasized Maria's process of "revolutionary conscientization" who, however, disappears after the confirmation of the death of her partner. Luandino Vieira, author of the stories filmed by Sarah Maldoror, considers Monangambeee and Sambizanga "the first two attempts at cinema made by Angolans," although the former "Is a very personal interpretation by Sara Maldhoror (sic) and presents some difficulties."7 In correspondence with Mário de Andrade in 1973, the writer praises the film since, despite not having seen it when he collaborated with Maldoror, he had contact with its repercussion in specialized circles:
"The profound comprehension of this phenomenon of revolutionary "patience" is – I know – a little difficult for the European left which always has the tendency to see in the revolutionaries of the so-called Third World this inopportune and heroic agitation and action (the hero who dies with a machinegun in their hands is the only one they can conceive) for which they only have nostalgia. [...] For this reason I was very happy to read Sara's declarations, her courage to go against the cliché that they (still) want to impose on us the reality they we know."8
It was made in Congo-Brazzaville. Government support was obtained for the filming, such as the use of cars, trucks, helicopters, building sites, a prison, etc. Jacques Poitrenaud played the role of the torturer; as in Monangambeee, the director used a professional actor to represent the oppressors. Similarly, she also recruited amateur actors from the Congo and exiles from Angola, many of whom spoke in local languages, such as Lingala and Lari. Elisa Andrade, the economist linked to PAIGC who lived in Algeria, once again stood out in her role. MPLA activists played their own political roles, such as Manuel Videira ("le chef de brigade"), Tala Ngongo (Miguel), and Lopes Rodrigues (Mussunda). The young Adelino Nelumba, playing the character Zito, was a war orphan looked after by MPLA. Also from the same political movement was Domingos Oliveira, who played Domingos Xavier, and who was actually a tractor driver from the north of Angola who had moved to the Congo. The film's technical team was predominantly French, and it was from France, the ally of the Portuguese in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) where part of the budget to make the film came. The musical soundtrack, which has a narrative role of great importance in the film, was credited to the local group Les ombres, commanded by the voice of Ana Wilson, as well as the songs of the Angolan musical group N'gola Ritmos.
Publicity for the film used the image of the sacrificed Domingos Xavier, despite the greater protagonism which women, especially Maria, had in the film.
In 1972 the film won the Gold Tanit in the IVème Festival of Carthage and an award in the IV Festival of Ouagadoudou. However, it faced censorship in Portugal, where it was only released in October 1974, since the authorities argued that it sought to "prevent maneuvers of reaction and to create propaganda for one of the emancipation movements, still at war." Principally in Angola, the film suffered a series of retaliations, in accordance with Luandino Vieira's interview with Cine Cubano magazine, and in May and June 1975 fights broke out between those watching the film who accused each other of convenience with colonialism. For this reason, the writer stated, "we decided that the film would be reserved for later in the day, when some time could be spent to clarify for viewers the dynamics of the cinematographic process and education."9 In the African country the film was only shown in restricted projection circles, with meetings of MPLA activists and social movements, and was banned from cinemas. Despite making two adaptations of the writings of Luandino Vieira and being the partner of MPLA's first leader, Sarah Maldoror denied that she had close ties with the party: "The contacts came from there [from Mário de Andrade], although I never participated in rallies or meetings."10
After completing Sambizanga, Maldoror had plans to make a biography of Amílcar Cabral, counting on funds from Panama, led at the time by General Torrijos: "La compréhension du général Torrijos pour les problèmes africains et le grand intérét que ressent la jeunesse panaméenne pour l'Afrique m'ont frappée."11 In the Central American country, Sarah Maldoror filmed a medium length film entitled Velada (1974), with non-professional actors. Adapted from the book Pecatta minuta, by the Panamanian Pedro Rivera, it tells of the political conscientization of a teacher in a relationship with one of her students, part of the youth who contested the presence of the United States in the country. A large part of the filming occurred in the National Institute, with the young people playing themselves.
In the other fictional films, Sarah Maldoror continued with her literary adaptations. At the beginning of the 1970s, she made a filmic reading of a play by Aimé Césaire in Et les Chiens se taisaient (1974), filmed in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, which was the only staging we identified in her filmography. In 1981 she made Un Dessert pour Constance, inspired by the text of the French writer Daniel Boulanger about two black immigrant workers in Paris. A year later she adapted a novella by Victor Serge in L'Hôpital de Leningrad, about compulsory hospitalization of psychiatric patients under Stalinism. Finally, Le Passager du Tassili (1987), an adaptation of Les A.M.I. du Tassili by the Algerian Akli Tadjer about Algerian immigration in France, L'Enfant cinema (1996), about the emergence of the "seventh art"' and Scala Milan A.C. (2001), dealing with the challenges facing youths from the same neighborhood, complete her fictional films.
What predominated in her work were documentaries, especially short ones, shown on French television. In the 1970s, she directed La commune, Louise Michel et nous and Saint-Denis sur avenir, both from 1971; the latter was shown in the 1972 Cannes Festival. She made various short films about the architectural aspects of Paris over the years, such as La Basilique de Saint-Denis, 1976, and Paris, le cimetière du Père-Lachaise, 1977, and above all biographies of artists, such as the Catalan painter Juan Miró, the Haitian poet René Depestre, and the intellectual and political activist of Négritude León-Gontran Damas, from French Guyana. In her filmography, the life and work of Aimé Césaire were the principal theme in four films: Et les chiens se taisaient, 1974; Aimé Césaire – un homme, une terre, 1977; Aimé Césaire – le masque des mots, 1987; and Eia pour Césaire, 2009. She also made ten films about carnivals in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, the Caribbean islands, and Reunion, a French overseas departement.
In the 1970s, she denied being linked to feminism, and bypassed various questions which touched on the theme. The fact of being a women was not assumed by her as something specific in her work, even though a critical view of her work can perceive her care and zeal in the portrayal of women, as shown by the comments on the project Fuzis para Banta and, above all, in what can be seen in Sambizanga, through the protagonist Maria and the solidarity of peasants with the character. Over the years the director emphasized in interviews the social and political role of women, above all the audiovisual sphere.12
Her work as a director has inspired other female and male filmmakers around the world. Anne Laure Folly, a cinema director from Togo who mirrored herself on Sarah to make cinema, made Sarah Maldoror ou la nostalgie de l'utopie (1998) about her. Another tribute came from Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, who directed the short film Preface à des fusils pour Banta (2011), in which he makes various reflections on the film making process and its physical disappearance through work material which resisted time, such as annotations, photographs, and Sarah's memories of the episode. Currently Sarah Maldoror's daughters, Henda Ducados and Annouchka de Andrade, are working on the restoration, preservation, and divulgation of her vast and dispersed filmography.
Monangambéee, Algeria, 1968, fiction, 15 min.
Des fusils pour Banta, Portuguese Guinea/Algeria, 1970, fiction, 105 min.
La Comunne, Louise Michel et nous, France, 1971, documentary, 13 min.
Saint-Denis sur avenir, France, 1971, documentary, 45 min.
Sambizanga, Congo-Brazzaville, 1972, fiction, 102 min.
Velada, Panama, 1974, fiction, 60 min.
Et les chiens se taisaient, France, 1974, documentary/fiction, 13 min.
La Basilique de Saint-Denis, France, 1976, documentary, 05 min.
Paris, le cimetière du Père-Lachaise, France, 1977, documentary, 05 min.
Aimé Césaire – un homme, une terre, Martinica, 1977, documentary, 52 min.
Un masque à Paris : Louis Aragon, France, 1978, documentary, 20 min.
Miró – peintre, France, 1979, documentary, 05 min.
Fogo, île de feu, Capo Verde, 1979, documentary, 23 min.
À Bissau, le carnaval, Guinea-Bissau, 1980, documentary, 17 min.
Un dessert pour Constante, France, 1980, fiction, 52 min.
L'Hôpital de Leningrad, France, 1982, fiction, 52 min.
Un Sénégalais en Normandie, France, 1983, documentary, 10 min.
La littérature tunisienne de la Bibliothèque Nationale, France, 1983, report, 05 min.
Claudel à Reims, France, 1984, documentary, 05 min.
René Depestre – poète, France, 1984, documentary, 05 min.
Toto Bissainthe – chanteuse, France, 1984, documentary, 05 min.
Robert Lapoujade – peintre, France, 1984, documentary, 05 min.
Alberto Carlisky – sculpteur, France, 1984, documentary, 05 min.
Le racisme au quotidien, France, 1984, documentary, 05 min.
Robert Doisneau – photographe, France, 1984, documentary, 05 min.
Portrait de Madame Diop, France, 1986, documentary, 10 min.
Le passager du Tassili, France, Algeria, 1987, fiction, 90 min.
Aimé Césaire – le masque des mots, United States of America, Martinique, 1987, documentary, 52 min.
Emanuel Ungaro – couturier, France, 1987, documentary, 05 min.
Vlady – peintre, Mexico, 1989, documentary, 23 min.
Léon Gontran Damas, French Guyana , 1994, documentary, 23 min.
L'enfant cinéma, France, 1996, fiction, 23 min.
La tribu du bois de l'É, Reunião, 1998, documentary, 18 min.
Scala Milan A.C., France, Italy, 2001, fiction, 26 min.
La route de l'esclavage, Haiti, Martinique, 2003, documentary, 27 min.
Les Oiseaux mains, France, 2005, animation, 30 seg.
Eia pour Césaire, France, 2009, documentary, 60 min.
The filmmmaker passed away on April 13, 2020, leaving us a extensive political, humanistic and cultural work.
MALDOROR apud ANDRADE Annouchka de, "Um olhar sobre o mundo," in Lúcia Ramos MONTEIRO (org.), África(s): cinema e revolução, (São Paulo, Buena Onda Produções Artísticas e Culturais, 2016), 84.
MALDOROR apud SCHEFER Raquel, "Sarah Maldoror : o cinema da noite grávida de punhais. Entrevista de Raquel Schefer a Sarah Maldoror," in Maria do Carmo PIÇARRA, Jorge ANTÓNIO (coord.), Angola : o nascimento de uma nação, Volume III: o cinema da independência, (Lisboa, Guerra e Paz, Editores, S.A., 2015), 145.
MALDOROR apud PIÇARRA Maria do Carmo, " 'Os cantos de Maldoror' : cinema de libertação da 'realizadora-romancista'," Mulemba, Rio de Janeiro, vol. 9, no. 17, 2017, p. 21.
Citation of Sarah Maldoror in: JACQUES Paula, "Guinee-Bissau : le myhe et la realité," Jeune Afrique, Paris, no. 566, 1971, p. 55.
VIEIRA apud LOPEZ PEGO Rigoberto, "Soy angolano y trabajo con fuerza. Entrevista con Luandino Vieira: la información más completa que se haya publicado sobre el cine angolano," Cine Cubano, La Habana, no. 94, 1979, p. 163.
VIEIRA apud PIÇARRA Maria do Carmo, " 'Os cantos de Maldoror': cinema de libertação da 'realizadora-romancista'," Mulemba, Rio de Janeiro, vol. 9, no. 17, 2017, p. 25.
VIEIRA apud LOPEZ PEGO Rigoberto, "Soy angolano y trabajo con fuerza. Entrevista con Luandino Vieira: la información más completa que se haya publicado sobre el cine angolano," Cine Cubano, La Habana, p. 163, 1979, no. 94.
MALDOROR apud SCHEFER Raquel, op. cit., p. 144.
PINA Marie-Paule de, "Sarah Maldoror: après 'Sambizanga,' 'Velada'," Afrique-Asie, luttes et combats, Paris, no. 62, 1974, p. 49.
A recent interview was made by Justine Malle in 2017 and is available at: < https://vimeo.com/221475862 >. Accessed on: 06 Aug. 2018.
In PALLISTER, Janis L. Sarah [Ducados] Maldoror, in French-Speaking Woman Film Directors : A Guide, Madison, Teaneck, London, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Associated University Press, 1997, p. 20-22, there appear some titles we excluded from the list because of the lack of further references: Viva la Muerte and The Poor and the Proud (both 'shorts'), made between 1971 and 1972; Wilfredo Lam ("1978-1979"); Vladimir Kibalchich ("1982"); and Tragédie du roi Christophe, made between 1986 and 1987.