“Long live victory! Long live France!” These the first words we hear blurted out in Ousmane Sembène’s revisionist recount of the tragic massacre of mostly Senegalese soldiers at the eponymous Camp at Thiaroye on November 30, 1944, upon orders from French officials. It’s the first detail the sets the tone for a film that aggressively concerned with markers of Africa’s fraught sense identity in a changing geopolitical landscape.
Co-written and co-directed by Thierno Faty Sow, ‘Camp de Thiaroye’ ultimately looks to eulogise the platoon of soldiers from the oxymoronic French Free Army who embody the dilemma of Africans who grew up under colonial rule. They rebelled against the superiors after a dispute over their gratuities for fighting for the “Fatherland”. The French planned to halve their pay during the conversion of French Francs to Senegalese Francs. “It’s too much money for a Nigger.”
In ‘Thiaroye’, the father of African cinema all but continues the story he begun in ‘Emitai’, where villagers that rose up to defend the “woman’s sweat” from ravaging French soldiers were slaughtered en masse.
When I think of Sembène, his confrontational ideas come to mind and for good reason. But ‘Thiaroye’ is a strong reminder that he not only engaged in lacerating soapbox pedagogy throughout his filmography but dabbled in intellectual discourse on the complexities of African identity.
Watching ‘Thiaroye’ I was reminded of Nigerian director Kunle Afolyan’s 2015 film ‘October 1’ which plays as a subtle meditation on a lost generation of Africans who could never lay claim to the agency and dignity of statehood. In ‘Thiaroye’, Senegal would not be free for another 16 years. But more cynical observers would argue that independence never ushered in the dignity sovereignty that words like “Ghana is free forever” demanded.
‘Thiaroye’ operates with the urgency and cynicism that has come to define Sembène’s work. The idea of freedom is but a façade for the returning soldiers and for Africa. This façade is clear to see for the most broken of the soldiers, Sijiri Bakaba’s Pays.
Sometimes coming off as an invalid, the mute Pays’ eyes look like a window into past traumas. Always carrying a trusted Nazi helmet, he cannot speak and is reduced to strained grunts and gestures. But Pays is the most perceptive of the veterans. As the soldiers revel in the home soil beneath their feet as they settle in the Dakar-based camp, Pays’ eyes drift towards the barbed wire around them and the sentries keeping watch over the camp. The close-up of his hand caressing the wire speak not to comfort but some eerie disbelief on his part. After the trauma of time spent in a German POW camp, a return to home soil offered a more insidious embrace.
There is a subtlety to Pays that resonates and defies the largely blunt approach Sembène is known for (a blunt approach enforced by his use of mostly non-professional actors). Pays is in many ways the repressed griot without a voice, the message lost in translation, the prophet not heeded at the most critical juncture – a near-Sembène avatar when you think about it.
But as incisive as his arc is, Pays is mostly on the periphery. The character that moves the plot forward is the model soldier Sergeant Major Diatta (Ibrahima Sane), who left a Parisian wife and daughter in France to temporarily return home. He is literate in both French and English, impresses his superiors with his refined literary and music tastes. But when his intellect crosses the line as the film enters the final stretch, he is branded a communist.
There was the temptation to label Diatta a lackey of the French or at the very least a man distracted by the white gaze. Consider his disregard for his customs by marrying a woman not approved by his kin; a woman who resembled the race of people that sacked his village and murdered his parents. One of his aunts reminds him of this with anguish etched on her face when she sees the stark picture of his white wife and mixed-race child in his quarters.
Most of the detail and ideas with respect to identity and maybe globalism converge on Diatta’s arch in quite clunky fashion early on. From the onset of the film, the Senegalese soldiers arrive donning donated American uniforms not the more juvenile looking garbs worn by regular Senegalese troops. Some ways down the line, taking advantage of his American GI look, he tries to patronise a brothel and is the subject of some racist abuse.
The plot thickens unnecessarily when some US Military Police (notably led by a black officer who calls him “boy”) mistake Diatta for fellow US Soldier who had broken protocol. This leads to him being beaten and arrested, sparking a small battle between the Diatta’s colleagues camped at Thiaroye and the US troops.
It’s a section the ‘Thiaroye’ could have done without. The film runs at almost 150 minutes. Character-wise, one could argue its purpose, aside from highlighting the cultural strains Diatta’s ilk faced, served to entrench the bond between the Senegalese troops. Our questions about Diatta’s loyalties start to wane as it becomes clear his sympathies are with his fellow soldiers. We fought for France, now we fight for Africa, he declares at a point.
The new uniforms they wear do not hide the weariness of the soldiers. It certainly doesn’t put a stop the racism and insults they endure in the camp from the French and their own countrymen. The horrendous meals they are fed become the first point of conflict between them and their French superiors. The eventual spark for the mutiny and tragic massacre that occurred under the cover of darkness had to do with their demands for compensation.
The French’s relative silence on the massacre at Thiaroye elevates the importance ‘Thiaroye’, a film that was supported by Algeria; a country with the scar of the 1954 Setif massacre where French police fired on demonstrators at a protest on 8 May killing hundreds.
There is no mention of the Thiaroye massacre in French history books and it isn’t taught in schools. Sembène’s mission to speak truth to power, which had previously faced foils in his own home country after the incendiary critique of the political class in ‘Xala’, was also banned in France for a decade and censored in Senegal.
The French admit that 35 soldiers died but some veteran “Tirailleurs Senegalais” insist that 300 black African soldiers were killed on the evening of November 30, 1944. It took 62 years for France to finally offer the soldiers equal pensions and it was only in 2012 that then-French President Francois Hollande officially recognised the “bloody repression”. But it still doesn’t count for much of an apology.
Thiaroye is ultimately a painful memory, a memory African’s do not have the luxury of repressing. To forget will be almost as criminal as the atrocities themselves, the filmmakers seem to say.
The scene where French guns open fire on the camp isn’t the most intricately filmed; a close up of a machine gun barrel being operated by unseen faces cuts to running African soldiers being mowed down as the basic visual equation. A few explosions are spliced in here and there. But it plays like a recurrent nightmare and only hits home when the gunfire stops and the camera mournfully surveys the dead, many of whom’s company we enjoyed in the preceding two hours.
I’ve come far enough in my appreciation of African cinema to accept that Sembène was not the most talented African filmmaker. His visual sense had nothing on the likes of Djibril Diop Mambety and Souleymane Cissé to name a few. But it was his clarity of purpose and single-minded devotion to mental liberation that makes it easy to anoint him as one of the most important filmmakers for marginalised audiences.
These audiences will understand the fractured sense of self. Consistently, the most griping image in the film is of the unraveling Pays in his Nazi SS helmet, the only seeming constant in the life of a man with everchanging skins. This constant is Pays only source of comfort. I won’t pretend to understand why. I just know that it haunts me and fills me with sadness that more people than deserve to still see themselves in Pays.