Camp de Thiaroye (Ousmane Sembène, 1988)

Camp de Thiaroye

Director: Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow.

Year: 1988.

Country: Senegal.

Late 1944, a few months after the liberation of Paris. At the port of Dakar, Senegal, West African infantrymen are disembarking after years of service in Europe and North Africa, or of confinement in German concentration camps for some of them. There is little fanfare to tell you these men, alongside the Arabs and Berbers of France’s North African colonies, made up two thirds of General De Gaulle’s Free French Army who fought to win back France. Indeed De Gaulle made sure the liberation itself was a whitewashed PR campaign: black soldiers were replaced by white soldiers for the march into Paris and subsequent celebrations. When evacuating from the beaches of Dunkirk, it was again the black soldiers who were at the very back of the queue, easy pickings for the Nazi snipers or abandoned altogether — however much of a powerfully immersive experience Nolan’s film is, it makes no mention of this.

Waiting to be officially given leave and remunerated the four years of backpay they were promised, the men are housed in the Camp de Thiaroye, treated as third-rate soldiers, denied the same privileges as their French counterparts, served up with meals worse than those they fed on as POWs. They represent a transition point in the history of colonial empire, for how can they return to being the same docile subjects believing in the myth of white superiority as before, when it is they who have given their blood for the depleted occupied ‘Motherland’. It becomes clear to the French generals and captains, paternalistic and condescending in their racism with the one exception of the enlightened but naively idealistic Captain Raymond, that as the war for France has been won another battle is starting: one for the empire itself. So when they decide to renege on their (worthless) word of honour and cut the soldiers’ salary by half, there is more at stake for them than mere penny-pinching — they want to put these men who risked life and limb for France back in their ‘place’. The result was the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Africans, who despite being French soldiers, were summarily executed in an incident for which the French government has never apologised.

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Sembène, giant of African cinema and a soldier in the French Army from 1942 to 1944, draws partly on his autobiographical experiences to bring this shameful episode of France’s history to screenSergeant Diatta (Ibrahima Sane), an intellectual law student married to a Frenchwoman and who speaks French better than his French superiors, is clearly the character in which we most recognise the literary erudition of Sembène. It is however the character of the ‘wise fool’, Pays, a mute traumatised by his experiences at Buchenwald and incarnated by the malleable facial features of the great Ivorian actor Sidiki Bakaba, who perhaps steals the show. Before the final massacre, it is he from his sentry post who sees the tanks coming, but as he associates this invasion with German soldiers and cannot verbalise what he has seen, all the camp’s residents think he is merely hallucinating again and head back to bed. For the French government (who banned the film for 10 years), this direct comparison between the actions of the French military and Nazism was too much to take, and many critics dismissed it at the time as too ‘on-the-nose’ — but it is just as subtle as it needs to be when dealing with the horrors humans committed against other humans in the name of imperialism.

Individuals aside, the film is an ensemble panorama of life at the camp, and episodic in the best sense, allowing its characters and events freedom to roam and rhyme with each other across its ample 150-minute running time, and providing an overarching sense of pan-African community: men from Senegal, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Chad, Burkina Faso, even an African-American G.I. who patches things up with Diatta after starting off on the wrong foot. There is a solidarity there, and even a traditional democracy when each barrack elects a representative to go and discuss the pay situation with the French officials. Camp de Thiaroye offers an epic-scale revision and correction of the official version of history, bringing to light not just the unsung efforts of Africans in WW2 but also their agency in the history of Africa itself.

11 thoughts on “Camp de Thiaroye (Ousmane Sembène, 1988)

  1. Is this one of the so rare instances where i have helped a brilliant film analysis with an upload? Would love to know if =)

    Amazing job again Cinescope, think you should review Defamation [2009] Anti-Semitism is comparatively rare, when it appears it’s usually Jewish ppl are judged cos of what the Israeli Govt/fundamentalists do.

    As the Defamation vid shows, it’s wrong to blame the ordinary Israeli for the extremists wrongs, Israelis are indoctrinated from tots.

  2. One of the ways i know i’m not anti-semitic, is i know the Israel Govt is used by the US Empire as a stooge/trojan horse in the ME, NOWT TO DO WITH COMPASSION!

  3. There’s not much to choose between right wing Israel Govts and Iran under the Shah, apart from the mass killings in Iran. They’re both US Empire stooges but Israelis can be intimidated easier without bloodshed.

  4. Out of interest to some, i am currently devising a better iq test, which has many skills incorporated. The current iq test is rubbish, it’s Western oriented and was changed again and again til boys scored higher.

    Yep, it’s a test which is meant to have specific outcomes but even that’s gone wrong. Think the test i’m devising has a good chance of being a genuine benchmark.

  5. The major thing is Western Govts, particularly the US/UK have lied to us so much and committed atrocities/war crimes without our permission, they’re not mentioned in the report. The Atlantic Council problem is we can access the real truth and they want to deny us access to those truths, so their lies are our only source.

  6. What seriously makes me feel so angry is the Atlantic Council psychopaths don’t allow any of the peace and security they talk about to the ME, who are just cannon fodder for US empire interests.

    Nobody who possesses a smidgeon of humanity can agree with the scum, they want to suppress truth and flood us with their evil lies

  7. Well, they’ve been doing it since 1945 under different names, apart from Yeltzin who let the West buy Russia, Russiaphobia is the big everything.

    Putin’s scum but he’s intelligent and a diplomat, it’s thanks to him the world has not been nuked, he wants a multipolar world. In between he’s made superior weapons, planes everything, apparently could fight a strategic nuclear war but i don’t see how that works out, the world would still be f…ed. The Russians did something so bad to the US Donald Cook in 2014, where they rendered the ship helpless and buzzed it, the US have never tried again.

    Russia would win any war, thing is it would n’t be worth living

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