Why this might not be so easy

Born in France to a Guadeloupean father and a French mother, Sarah Maldoror is remembered as one of the first female filmmakers to document the anti-colonial struggle in Africa. For that reason, she’s often labelled the matriarch of African cinema, a weighty title but one that encapsulates the filmmaker’s passion, love and dedication to the camera as a tool for radical, feminist liberation for a continent bearing the weight of colonial oppression. 

Maldoror’s oeuvre is expansive – she made two dozen films from the early 1970s right up to her death in 2020 from COVID-19 – and her cinematic vision is truly revolutionary in both political and artistic senses. She was a great Marxist and anti-colonial thinker, and her films are made with a clear point of view, but while political filmmaking can run the risk of becoming didactic, this great filmmaker’s work welcomes its audience with open arms, to take part in collective visions of a just, equal, artistic future. 

The writer and political thinker Aimé Césaire – also Maldoror’s friend and a subject of her documentary films – once composed a poem to Maldoror. In English it can be translated as: “To Sarah Maldoror… who, camera in hand, fights oppression, alienation and defies human bullshit.” It’s a shame that it took Maldoror’s death in early 2020 for many cinemagoers to discover – and acknowledge – the filmmaker’s impact on pan-African, anti-colonial and feminist cinema, but her legacy lives on on-screen, and there’s no better time to immerse yourself in the radical cinema of Sarah Maldoror that still defies “human bullshit” today. 

The best place to start – Sambizanga 

In the 1950s, Maldoror became actively involved in the struggle for African liberation. Previously a theatre maker – Maldoror co-founded the first Black theatre group in France with the aim “to end the role of maid” – she transitioned to film in the early 60s as her artistic tool of choice. Maldoror studied cinema at the Moscow Film Academy, where she met and was greatly inspired by the work of the Sengelese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, himself remembered as the father of African cinema. Returning from the Soviet Union, Maldoror worked as an assistant on Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark anti-colonial film The Battle of Algiers (1966), before beginning to shoot her own short films.  

Sambizanga (1972)

In 1972, Maldoror released her second feature film, Sambizanga, which remains her best known work. Produced by the anti-colonial political movement, Movimento Popular de Libertaҫão de Angola (MPLA), Sambizanga is about the struggle for Angolan liberation from Portuguese colonial forces. The film follows a working-class woman and her newborn baby who travel to Angola’s capital city, Luanda, where her husband has been arrested by Portuguese authorities as an MPLA political militant. Moving from prison to prison, the film’s protagonist becomes a metaphorical – as well as very literal – representative of Angolan liberation. Explicitly political, Sambizanga is also a radiantly beautiful film, shot on 35mm and lit with golden light, as Maldoror turns dismal spaces into Caravaggio-esque oil paintings. 

In all her work, Maldoror strove to centre working-class, Black feminism right at the heart of Marxist and anti-colonial ideology, and Sambizanga, with its bold visual style and tender subject matter, is a perfect introduction to Maldoror’s poetically radical filmmaking. 

What to watch next

Although Maldoror is best remembered for Sambizanga, which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, she made more than 40 films, spanning features, shorts and television documentaries, and shot across Angola, France and French Guiana. Some of her works have been lost over time –  her debut feature, Guns for Banta (1970), was infamously confiscated by Angolan officials before it could be screened.

Monangambé (1968)

Maldoror’s short films are some of her most explicitly political work, yet also her most poetic. “I have no use for preachy militant films,” she once said. Her first film, a short called Monangambé (1968) served as an early blueprint for Sambizanga and exemplifies Maldoror’s mandate for an artistic, intimate radical vision. The short has a chilling premise – a man is mistaken for a terrorist and imprisoned – yet it’s a story told lyrically as much as it’s told literally: Maldoror rehumanises the Black body under colonial violence as a torture scene transcends into a solo dance piece. 

While Maldoror is remembered as a political filmmaker, her work is often equally joyous – in fact, the two qualities essentially go together for Maldoror to achieve her artistic vision of liberation. Later in her career, Maldoror made films for television, and one delight in her filmography is Un dessert pour Constance (1981), a comedy that was broadcast on French television. Set in the 1970s, the film follows two street cleaners who enter a haute cuisine cookery competition. It might have a lighter and more comedic tone than her other earlier, explicitly radical filmmaking, but Maldoror’s politics can still be found in the film, perhaps sweetened and made more palatable for a mass television audience. The two cleaners-turned-chefs expose the pretentious pomp of French cuisine – as well as the industry’s racism and classicism – as they take part in the competition to raise money to send one of their sick colleagues back to his homeland. 

Where not to start

As well as the political world, Maldoror also captured the artistic world through short documentary portraits of poets, musicians and writers. Her friend, the French writer Aimé Césaire was a significant inspiration for Maldoror: she documents his life in Aimé Césaire – un homme une terre (1976) and Aimé Césaire, le masque des mots (1987). The Haitian singer Toto Bissainthe, the Colombian artist Ana Mercedes Hoyos, and the first Black woman to run a publishing house in Paris, Christiane Diop, were all documented by Maldoror as the filmmaker strove to record cultural icons who are often, consciously and unconsciously, “forgotten” by the canon.

Maldoror’s documentaries are wonderful. They’re lyrical tapestries of her subjects, composed of archival footage, interviews and music, and celebrate plurality rather than authoritative biography. While these shorter works are less often the focus of retrospectives of the filmmaker’s work, they’re well worth seeking out to fill in the gaps of Maldoror’s expansive cinematic and liberatory vision – a vision which celebrates the poet, the street cleaner and the political radical on equal ground. 

BFI Membership

Become a BFI Member from £37 to enjoy priority London Film Festival booking as well as other great benefits all year round.

Join today

Originally published: 20 September 2021