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."
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
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
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
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." 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.
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."
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
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." 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."
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
Publicity for the film used the image of the sacrificed Domingos Xavier,
despite the greater protagonism which women, especially Maria, had in
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." 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."
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." 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.
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.
Filmography directed by Sarah Maldoror
Monangambéee, Algeria, 1968, fiction, 15 min.
Des fusils pour Banta, Portuguese Guinea/Algeria, 1970, fiction, 105
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
Aimé Césaire – un homme, une terre, Martinica, 1977, documentary, 52
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.