Monday, March 19, 2007

Camp de Thiaroye

1987, Senegal/Tunisia/Algeria, directed by Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow

Typically ambitious, Ousmane Sembène's Camp de Thiaroye focuses on a transit camp for demobbed members of the French West African regiments - the tirailleurs sénégalais - in late 1944, where hundreds of men await their final payments and permission to leave for their villages. The film is a work of fiction, but many of the details are drawn from the realities of regimental life (and, perhaps, the many films set in army barracks and prison camps: there are definite genre parallels), while the concluding sequences are based on an actual incident, though Sembène and his co-writer and co-director have taken substantial - and sometimes troubling - liberties with the historical record.

Though the soldiers in the camp have fought for the liberation of France - with some of the (mostly out-and-out racist) French officers assuming this demonstrates loyalty to the French state - their experiences are paradoxically the spur for independent thought, whether by a more politically-minded intellectual NCO, or by the enlisted men, who come to the conclusion that one corpse is about the same as another (the picture of harmonious inter-ethnic relations in the tirailleurs, though, stretches credibility at times, as does the portrayal of the NCO's friendship with a black US army sergeant). Sembène succeeds in giving a powerful sense of the importance of the wartime generation in later independence efforts, while there's also trenchant commentary on the French political scene of 1944 - and the divisions (including, particularly, the fear of communism) that would sweep France shortly thereafter - but historical simplifications and inaccuracies dog the film, making it less nuanced than most of the director's work.

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