The director, recently deceased due to the coronavirus, is one of the great figures of anti-colonial cinema. Openly rebellious and with a transgressive spirit, through her films we can approach the African liberation movements in such a transparent way that we can feel them in our own skin.
Unlike other artistic currents, cinema has an exact date of birth: February 13, 1895. In that year, the Lumiére brothers patented the cinematographer, filmed the first film and carried out the first public premiere.
With nuances, of course. The cinematograph was so similar to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope that the Lumieres made circular rather than square perforations on either side of the frames to avoid possible allegations of plagiarism. In turn, Edison had been “inspired” (in quotes for not using a term closer to theft), on a visit to Edward Muggeridge who told him about an invention that did for the eyes what the phonograph did for the ears, and to which he had given the melodious name of zoopraxiscope.
As a domino effect in which it is impossible to know which is the first tab and which is the last, what is obvious is that, since its inception, cinema has increased its influence on our way of seeing the world in an exponential way . In such a way that, for example, after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, one of the first decisions made by the organs of power was to prohibit excessively western films.
But censorship is not only practiced in Tehran. Despite the vindication of her figure in recent years, Sarah Maldoror could also feel the pressure of the narrowing of Gaullist France and, in fact, much of her film production arises as a response to institutional racism that drowns those who live. on the margins of society.
Poet of Blackness
If when talking about the parents of cinema you have to stop at surnames such as Melies, Murnau or Griffith, if we talk about anticolonial cinema you have to stop panoramic and focus on the face of Sarah Maldoror in the foreground.
The filmmaker, of Antillean heritage and born in 1929 in Condom-en-Armagnac, a tiny commune in the Department of Gers, uses the same baton as Melies or Griffith, yes, and shares a certain pioneering spirit with Murnau or Lubitsch, too, but her symphonies they sound completely different.
The French artist is not that she focuses on the world in another way… she is on another world. The protagonists of her films refuse to be mere extras in the history of cinema and find their own voice through works that have a clear political dimension and vindication of Blackness.
Maldoror’s political and social conscience is evident well before arriving at the cinema. At the end of the 1950s, the artist founded and directed Les Griots, the first dramatic company on French soil made up exclusively of African and Afro-Caribbean actors.
The company’s main objective is to end the roles that the cultural industry imposes on black artists and creators. Thus, throughout their years of artistic production, they are in charge of representing works such as ” The Tragedy of King Christophe ”, in which the martiniqués Aimé Césaire focuses on narrating the struggle of the Haitian people to conquer their freedom, or “Los Negros”, a title in which Jean Genet is in charge of revealing the perversions of colonialism from a symbolic funeral.
After her experience in the theater, Maldoror goes to Moscow to study cinema under the supervision of director Marc Donskoï. The passage through the capital of the USSR is vital for the director since she has a privileged connection with the first liberation movements in Guinea and Algeria and comes into contact with Ousmane Sembène, one of the leading figures in African cinema. On her return from the Soviet giant, these two questions will be fundamental in all her film production.
She later makes her Cannes debut. After working as an assistant to Gillo Pontecorvo in “The Battle of Algiers”, Maldoror made her directorial debut with the short film “Monangambe”. The film, shot in 68, denounces the torture techniques of the Portuguese army during the war in Angola and ended up being selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 1971, as well as at the Berlin Festival.
This is how Maldoror presents herself to the world. In case the world had not been taken for granted, the director signs, in her most important work, Sambizanga (1972), a story as intimate as it is committed and militant.
Set in the Angolan war of independence, the film also claims the resilience of African women and focuses on the figure of Maria, the wife of a rebel detained by the Portuguese army on a pilgrimage from prison to prison trying to discover what happened to her husband. The colonial liberation movement continues to mark Sarah Maldoror’s cinema, however, after approaching the issue with a markedly political point of view, in her subsequent works she does so by traveling to the essence of the African continent through its carnivals and parties.
The filmmaker goes to Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau to shoot two documentaries that bear certain similarities. For Maldoror, carnival is cathartic. A state in which limits can be transgressed, in which the state of things and the world can be turned around, and in which an explosion of music and sensations provokes a kind of collective spirit in which the identity qualities of African people.
As the eighties progressed, the director changed the tone of her works. Gradually, her titles become more subtle and through documentary cinema she is in charge of establishing an oblique dialogue with the main figures of the Blackness movement.
This is how she approaches the figures of the poets and philosophers Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimée Cesaire and León Damas in titles such as “Aimé Césaire au bout du petit matin” (1977), “Et les chiens se taiseient, d’Aimé Césaire” (1978 ), “Toto Bissainthe” (1984) and “Léon G. Damas” (1994).
In her latest works the funniest, nihilistic and sarcastic Maldoror appears. Through minimal stories, the filmmaker is responsible for giving voice to African immigration in France. In titles such as “Un dessert pour Constance” (1990), “Le racisme au quotidien” (1994) or “Scala Milan AC” (2003), the settings are not only the supports for developing stories, but they become concave mirrors in which the miseries of contemporary Europe are reflected. Matriarch of African cinema.
Maldoror’s legacy is so vital to understand the many difficulties of current African cinema that if Ousmane Sembène is considered the father of film noir, she has all the cards in her hand to be elevated to the rank of matriarch of blackness. And it is that the filmmaker stars in an artistic path full of first times.
She is one of the first women to direct a feature film in Africa, she is a pioneer in denouncing the abuses of colonialism and, in addition to being stark, she is a precursor of the rehabilitation of black history in the world of cinema and an original part of the emergence of a Third world cinema that seeks to promote radical changes in society … in short, in any room in the world that projects a story that approaches the disinherited echoes the echo of Sarah Maldoror.