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.