Sarah Maldoror, Négritude Poet and Film-maker
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Sabatini Building, Auditorium - Santa Isabel, 52
Cinematheque, Azcona and Borau Theatres – Plaza de Legazpi, 8
Embassy of Algeria in Spain, Cinematheque of Algeria, Ministère de l'Europe et des Affaires étrangères, Center national du cinéma et de l'image animée (CNC) and CNRS Images
The first retrospective on Sarah Maldoror (Gers, France, 1929) in Spain rediscovers a vital film-maker whose work remains obscure, despite her huge commitment to the decolonial movement and the struggles for social diversity from 1960 onwards. Born Sarah Ducados to an Antillean father and a French mother, she took on the name Maldoror in homage to Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) by Lautréamont, a poet admired by the Surrealists. Such a gesture sought to breathe life into Surrealism from the tenets of Négritude, an artistic, social and political movement she would become a major exponent of, with her work responding at once to the search for poetic form with which to express an alternative identity and the promise of a future society offering new black culture emanating from anti-colonialism and Pan-Africanism during the 1960s.
In 1961 Maldoror went to Moscow to study film, and it was there that she met Ousmane Sembène, the great Senegalese film-maker, and began working on vibrant and syncopated montages to rhythms of jazz and black music. Upon her return to France she joined the struggles of the African emancipation movements, complementing her films with essays by Amílcar and Luis Cabral, Joaquim and Mário de Andrade. A condemnation of the colonialist system is at the core of her best-known films: Monangambée, Sambizanga and La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers), in which she collaborated as assistant director to Gillo Pontecorvo.
The aforementioned films, shot in Algeria and the Congo at the height of anti-colonial uprisings, denounce the repression of people and the use of torture against guerrillas from an anti-racist and feminist perspective of emancipation, in keeping with the film-maker’s oeuvre. Despite a strong political commitment, her work eschewed propaganda, so much so that Algeria’s revolutionary government considered her first feature, Des fusils pour Banta, too ambiguous and seized it – the film has not seen the light of day until now. The thrilling prospect of a society without Western rule paved the way for a new line of work, in which African identity is explored through festivals and carnivals, leading to a collaboration with William Klein in the huge 1969 fresco Festival panafricain d'Alger (The Pan-African Festival of Algiers), showing the carnivals of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.
In the wake of this militant period, Maldoror approached Négritude as a poetics of difference. Based on Pan-Africanism, anti-colonialism and the synthesis between Marxism and Surrealism, Négritude is a cultural movement founded by poets Aimé Cesaire (Martinica, 1913–2018), Leopold Senghor (Senegal, 1906–2001) and Leon G. Damas (France, 1912–1978). It had such a strong influence on Sarah Maldoror that her films would be defined as a translation of the three writers’ poetry into images and sound, a visual manifesto of Négritude manifested in the consideration of identity as the result of relations, the constant presence of orality, the poetic word, and the frenetic rhythm of sonorous music.
Participants: presentation and round-table discussions
Annouchka de Andrade is Sarah Maldoror’s daughter and one of the main figures behind the recovery of her work.
Mathieu Klebeye Abonnenc is an Antillean artist whose work approaches Sarah Maldoror’s and who looks to rebuild the affection and personal threads of the early decolonial movement.
Olivier Hadouchi is a researcher, professor and independent programmer who has worked tirelessly to recover militant and decolonial cinema from the 1960s and 1970s.
Chema González is head of the Museo Reina Sofía’s Cultural Activities and Audovisuals and the curator of this series.
Algeria, 1969, b&w, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, 16mm transferred to digital, 17’
Angola and France, 1972–1973, colour, original version in Portuguese, Lingala and Mbundu with Spanish subtitles, 16mm transferred to digital, 102’
Presented by: Sarah Maldoror
Two of the film-maker’s landmark films are screened in this session: Firstly, Monangambée, a chant meaning “white death” and a customary war cry against colonial exploitation in Angola. This short film describes the culturally incomprehensible abuses of Portuguese civil servants in the African country after the torture of a prisoner. Secondly, Sambizanga, a fictional feature-length film on the arrest of a member of the Movement of the Liberation of Angola and his wife and son’s relentless search for him. The film offers a feminist view against bureaucracy and the brutality of colonialism.
Gillo Pontecorvo (assistant director: Sarah Maldoror)
La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers)
Algeria and Italy, 1965, b/w, original version in French and Arabic with Spanish subtitles, B-R, 121’
Presented by: Annouchka de Andrade and Olivier Hadouchi
One of the most influential political films ever made, The Battle of Algiers vividly recreates Algeria’s turbulent struggle for liberation from French rule in the 1950s. Filmed documentary style on the streets of Algiers, the film constitutes a study of contemporary war, with terrorist attacks carried out by civilians and the brutal military techniques used to combat them. In this tour de force, Sarah Maldoror worked with Pontecorvo as assistant director.
Mathieu Klebeye Abonnenc
Préface à des fusils pour Banta
French Guyana, 2011, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 28’
Round-table discussion between Annouchka de Andrade, Olivier Hadouchi and Mathieu Klebeye Abonnenc, moderated by Chema González
A film installation on Sarah Maldoror’s lost film, Des fussils pour Banta, her first feature which was deemed too ambiguous by Algeria’s revolutionary government and therefore seized. The round-table discussion following the screening seeks at once to place Sarah Maldoror in the context of Third Cinema and to study her role in a present that is battling against new forms of colonialism, as well as the poetic and political lessons that issue forth from her films and life.
William Klein (assistant director: Sarah Maldoror)
Festival panafricain d'Alger [The Pan-African Festival of Algiers] RFA, Algeria and France, 1970, colour, original version in French and English with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 90’
“African culture will be revolutionary, or it won’t be”, concludes this monumental fresco on Pan-Africanism as the thinking of emancipation. To the vibrant rhythm of black music by Miriam Makeba, Archie Shepp, Nina Simone and Marion Williams, the architects of new black culture appear in the film alongside the major theorists of decolonialisation and future national leaders, while texts on the screen pick apart the colonialist system and its machinery of oppression.
A Bissau, le carnaval
Guinea-Bissau, 1980, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 18’
Fogo, l´ile de feu
Cape Verde, 1979, colour, original version in Portuguese and French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 32’
Un carnaval dans le Sahel
Cape Verde, 1979, colour, original version in Portuguese with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 15’
Following her experience with guerrillas and international decolonial movements, Sarah Maldoror directed a film season on new nations at the request of the governments of Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde. As an approach to the history of colonisation and black culture, she uses carnival, understood as a festival with which to breach limits, whereby the dominator becomes the dominated. Concurrently, carnival bursts with music and impressions, a great collective performance engendering the identity qualities of Négritude.
Et les chiens se taiseient, d'Aimé Césaire
France, 1978, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 13’
Aimé Césaire au bout du petit matin
France, 1977, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 57’
This session focuses on the poet, intellectual, dramaturgist and politician Aimé Cesaire (1913–2008), author of Discourse on Colonialism (1950) and several pivotal poem collections on Négritude. In Et les chiens se taiseient (1946), Maldoror adapts a theatre piece on a rebel who, condemned to death, becomes aware of his otherness. The dialogue with his mother – both existentialist and autobiographical – reverberates around the African sculptures on display at the Museum of Man, the old Trocadéro and an institution representing French colonial plundering, and is filmed through the mediation of Surrealist anthropologist Michel Leiris. Aimé Césaire au bout du petit matin tacks, on the landscape of Martinica, poetry readings, interviews with the writer and filmed theatre in a synthesis representing, through visual metaphors, the qualities of Césaire’s writing; “beautiful as nascent oxygen”, as André Breton wrote.
Louis Aragon, un masque à Paris
France, 1978, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 20’
Léon G. Damas
France, 1994, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 26’
This session brings together the last Surrealist poet in the inter-war period and the first in the new Surrealism of Négritude seen by Sarah Maldoror. Louis Aragon (1897–1982) is depicted with a red mask before his imagined museum, a huge archive of portraits, photographs and books, amassed in a disappearing world. Leon G. Damas (1912–1978), meanwhile, was the first poet to “live Négritude”, according to Leopold Senghor. Cosmopolitan and always in transit, his writing is a chorus of melodies and images imbued with angst and melancholy, and strongly influenced by jazz, blues and black music. This film, shot to the landscapes of Guyana with the voice of the artist, emerges from Maldoror’s keenness to create a poetic documentary.
Ahmed Lallem (assistant director: Sarah Maldoror)
Algeria and France, 1966, colour, original version in French and Arabic with Spanish subtitles, 35mm, 22’
Haiti, 1984, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 4’
Ana Mercedes Hoyos
France and Colombia, 2009, colour, Spanish, digital archive, 13’
In these female portraits the double subordinate condition of race and gender in the women portrayed can be perceived, not to mention their irrepressible energy. From the first to the last, Maldoror’s films meld anti-racism and a reflection on the place women occupy in the new decolonial society. This is the case in the medium-length film The Women, in which Ahmed Lallem, assisted by Maldoror, represents the aspirations of a group of young women after the independence of Algeria. Toto Bissainthe is a biographical sketch of the renowned Haitian singer and original member of Les griots, Sarah Maldoror’s theatre company of black actors, while Ana Mercedes Hoyos describes the career of the Colombian artist from the Atlantic side of Négritude and the traces of black culture in Colombia.
Un dessert pour Constance
France, 1980, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 60’
Scala Milan A.C.
France, 2003, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 18’
Les oiseaux mains
France, 2005, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 30’’
Sarah Maldoror puts forward cinema that brings down identity stereotypes from the mainstream. These two films made for television come together to demonstrate the multi-culturalism of Parisian society, in spite of the predominant national culture: in the comedy Un dessert pour Constance, two street cleaners of African origin find a cookbook of classic French recipes, which they study for fun and become genuine experts, winning first prize in a typically middle class TV programme in France; in Scala Milan A.C., a group of suburban youths from different ethnic and geographical backgrounds decide to describe their neighbourhood to the rhythm of Archie Shepp’s jazz, shaping a poetic anthem to a racialised and invisible France. Finally, Les oiseaux mains is a brief animation on utopia in marginalisation, revealing the film-maker’s desire for continuous learning.