Camp de Thiaroye (1987)
Directors: Ousmane Sembene and Thierno Faty Sow.
Starring: Sidiki Bakaba, Hamed Camara, Philippe Chamelat, Ismaila Cissť, Moussa Cissoko, Eloi Coly, Innocence Coly, Camara Med Dansogho, Eric Dudoit, Marcel Duplouy, Marie-ve Duplouy, Charles Estifian, Laurent Kuntz, IsmaŽl LŰ, Pierre Londiche, Lamine Mane, Andrť Massoni, Gerard Maxent, Marthe Mercadier, El Hadg Ndiaye, Thierno Ndiaye, Oumarou Neino, Daniel Odimbossoukou, Pierre Orma, John Peterson, Leopoldine Robert, Adama Samboa, Ibrahim Sane, Jean-Daniel Simon, Gustave Sorgho, Ababacar Sy Cissť, Gabriel Zahon, Koffi Saturnin Zinga, Casimir Zoba.
in WWII African men fight bravely for France but are screwed by their oppressors once it is time for them to be discharged
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Senegal, Africa. The band plays as wounded men are brought off a ship. First come those so badly wounded that they are brought off the ship on stretchers. Other soldiers, also wounded, come next. Then finally the non-wounded disembark. The soldiers are greeted as heroes. The blacks are separate from the whites on the shore. (This segregation is also apparent in the army with the officers being white and the regular soldiers being black.) The whites shout "long live France!" and "long live De Gaulle!"
Captain Raymond, commanding the detachment of repatriated infantrymen, reports in to Major August of the Dakar base and Captain Labrousse, commander of the transit camp of Thiaroye. The superior officers say that the men are not exactly in uniform, but Raymond says f it werenít for the Americans, they would have been in rags.
Sergeant Major Adjangor Diatta rushes over to his waiting family. His uncle says: "Our gods have protected you!" His aunt is also there along with his cousin Bintum Raymond comes over to the group and Adjangor introduces him to his family. Raymond sticks out his hand to shake hands with uncle, but uncle merely taps his hand. A little shocked, Raymond waits for an explanation from Adjangor, but none is offered. So Raymond leaves.
Adjangor asks how his village is doing and the two women turn their backs to him. Uncle tells his nephew that he will talk to him about it later. Adjangor returns to the soldiers.
Camp Thiaroye. Lt. Pierre greets August, Labrousse and Raymond. The camp commander Labrousse says that the soldiers will be staying in the barracks, but it will be for only a few days. They soon will be going home. Raymond tells Labrousse that they owe the men a lot. Laborusse reiterates this is just a transit camp.
Sgt. Major Diatta will allocate the huts. The men arrive. Labrousse tells the men that they are brave and that the officers are proud of them. They have been true to the reputation of their fathers in the years 1914 to 1918 (WWI). He calls France their fatherland and because of them France can stand tall. Lt. Pierre will head the camp.
A soldier named Pays wonders if this is a transit camp for the soldiers, why are there barbed wire fences around the installation? And there are armed guards in the sentry towers at each corner. Disturbing sights.
The corporal goes over to talk with Pays who seems almost to be in some type of trance. He tells Pays: "Here you are no longer a prisoner in the concentration camp Buchenwald..Itís over." An onlooker says that Pays has been broken down by his imprisonment.
The men shower and wash their clothes. A couple of them want to hang their clothes on the barbed wire fence. But Pays sporting a German SS helmet stops them, motioning to the sentries. The men say heís crazy.
Adjangor is visited by some of his relatives. He asks what killed his parents? His aunt says the soldiers did. They leveled the entire village with artillery. That was close to three years ago. Bintum sees a photo of a woman with a black girl and asks who they are. Adjangor answers they are his wife and his daughter. His aunt is shocked to hear the news. She asks how can he dare marry one of those who killed his parents and destroyed their village? Adjangor remains silent, shocked by her reaction. The aunt and two cousins leave.
The men eat lunch. They unanimously says the food is disgusting. Two men tell the head cook that itís worse than concentration camp food. The cook tells them to go complain to Lt. Pierre. Two other men come to ask the cook where is the meat? The cook uses his hand as a model to illustrate the meat distribution in the camp. The whites gets the whole hand, the mixed races get half the hand, meat for the natives is one-third of a hand and the infantrymen get a small fraction of a finger (a little meat only once a week). The corporal asks if, during the war, were the bullets one size for whites, another size for mixed races and still another size for the infantrymen?
The cook shouts for Lt. Pierre. He comes out and asks what the men are complaining about?. The corporal says that the men are not going to eat the food because it isnít even fit for the dogs. The lieutenant says thatís the food they have been issued and they will get nothing else. If they donít eat, he doesnít give a damn. The men donít like that answer. A group of them decide to go to the local village to get something decent to eat.
The lieutenant reports the problem to his superiors. Captains Labrousse and Raymond rush out to see the problem for themselves. Labrousse asks the cook and he says itís the usual rice, potatoes and beans. Raymond smells the food and says itís unfit to eat. Labrousse takes Raymond to the side and says the men can only have meat once a week. At home, they only have rice and millet. Raymond says the men deserve better.
The sergeant major is going to town and Raymond asks Labrousse to drive Aloyse into town. Labrousse is surprised to find that the sergeant. major not only loves French music, but French literature as well. The infantrymen come back from the village bringing live goats and chickens with them to be eaten. They show a goatís throat being cut and the blood gushing out. (I use only my peripheral vision on this scene.)
In town two men say in English to Aloyse that they have a nice girl for him. The sergeant major just pushes them out of his way and continues walking. He sees white French soldiers and quickly modifies his uniform to pretend he is an American black soldier. He speaks English to the men and is left alone.
Aloyse walks through the white section of town and into a white bar. The hostess Josette tells the female bar tender to double the price because the new customer is American. But when they speak to him in French, and he speaks in French to them. "Youíre not American?" They get all excited and yell to the manager that there is a native black in the joint. The female manager says that intercourse is intercourse. But when she sees the black in the bar with the white she freaks out and throws the sergeant major out. He objects that it was they who threw the Germans out of France, but she doesnít care. She only wants him gone.
Walking down the street a group of black and white American military police grab the sergeant major. They think he is American, even though he speaks to them in French. The police think he is trying to con them. The black policeman knocks him down with his baton. They then pick him up and throw him into the jeep. A soldier named Gabon sees what happened and runs to tell the other black soldiers.
He reports that the Americans beat up Sarge and they took him away. The men demand that the corporal do something about it. The corporal says they have to stop and think. But some want to go immediately and teach the Americans who they are. They demand respect. But another man says they should do it at night. They finally all agree to form a commando unit tomorrow, go to town and attack some Americans. The corporal picks Corporal Koffi, Oubangui, Gabon and himself.
In the morning Lt. Pierre reports that the sergeant major did not report this morning, but he went to town and probably is still on there on leave. The four commandos go to town dressed as American soldiers. When they see a white American soldier drive up in a jeep and park, they jump him and throw him into the jeep. Everyone thinks itís just those crazy Americans at it again. They bring him to the camp. Everyone crowds around and takes the man inside one of the barracks.
Lt. Pierre asks the corporal what is going on and the corporal says this is their business. The Americans beat up the sergeant major and are holding him, so they are keeping one of the American soldiers. Lt. Pierre demands that the corporal release the American, but the corporal wonít do it. The lieutenant goes to call for help.
With a pistol in his hand, the lieutenant reports to Labrousse that there is trouble in the camp tonight. He is afraid the men might kill the kidnaped American. Labrousse calls an American captain and finds out that their sergeant major is in the American military hospital. But Labrousse only says they will deal with the matter in the morning, even though Pierre told him there could be trouble tonight.
Labrousse goes to the officerís mess and tells Raymond and the others that the infantrymen have captured an American soldier to use as a hostage. The Americans want him released immediately. He says, you know how these Americans are racists.
The news on the radio is that on the front the Allies are at the borders of Germany. And the Red Army is pushing forward towards Berlin.
Larousse says the Americans think that Raymondís infantrymen are undisciplined. Raymond replies that the men were only responding to the Americansí aggression. The major says that Diatta was at the Coq Hardi club in the white district. Larousse and the major are shocked at the idea of a white man having to sleep with black men. Raymond says he does not share this idea. After all, some of his black infantryman spent three to four years in prisoner of war camps with whites.
In the morning the white officers come out. With them comes the sergeant major. The American officer greets the white captive, who tells the officer he was not mistreated. The officer then tells the French that if the man had been mistreated they would have come in there with their army and leveled the place. Larousse just says the translator to tell the American that he has already send a letter of apology to the Americans. The case is closed. As he leaves, the American officer says: "These French are completely out of control. Maybe itís the loss of the empire."
Larousse says the men are confined to their quarters by orders of the general. Some men go to ths sergeant majorís quarters to speak with them. They have a few laughs about the situation and then leave. Alone the sergeant major writes a letter to his wife. He says he feels guilty about having to leave them alone to face life under the Nazis.
An American sergeant comes to the gate. Itís the M.P. that had the dispute with Aloyse. Aloyse invites him to his quarters and the American gives him a box of cigars. He says he didnít know that Aloyse had just come from the front lines. He tells Aloyse that he is from Detroit. The American asks him to go out to a club with him, but sergeant major has to tell him he and the others are confined to quarters.
The whites are handing out the new French uniforms to the infantry men. They give Aloyse the clothes meant for regular soldiers, not an NCO (non-commissioned officer). Aloyse protests but they tell him just to take it anyway.
The men donít seem to like their new uniforms. One man says white Americans, white Frenchmen, theyíre all the same. But weíre not American and weíre not French. Weíre African. Another man says heís going to the village. Whoís going with me? he asks. There are women there they can have sex with. A few to the men go with him. In the village, a couple of the men go with women into the bushes. Another two await their turns.
Uncle talks to Aloyse about his family in France. Aloyse says after he is discharged he will stay a few months in Effok, but then go back to France to complete his studies. Uncle tells Aloyse that his mother and her had already picked a wife for him. Aloyse was to marry his daughter, Bintum. But Aloyse tells him he is already married and is a Catholic. Uncle responds that there are Catholics in the village and they have two or three wives. Aloyse gives uncle some chocolate, sugar and milk and uncle says he will give it to his wife: Bintum.
Bintum arrives and tells Aloyse that she has come for him. She sits in the shade of a huge tree. But Aloyse goes the other way. Captain Raymond comes to see Aloyse. Aloyse tells him what happened to his parents and his village. Raymonds says that was terrible.
Raymond asks Aloyse if he knows about the Brazzaville conference? Aloyse says he draws a parallel between Effok and Oradour-sur-Glane. Raymond objects that the canít compare Nazi barbarism with the excesses of the French army. But Aloyse says it is a colonial army, same mentality. The officers who in 1940 refused the rallying of African forces to the Free French Forces and who shot the Senegalese who joined are today beside the leader of Free France and control the colonies. Raymond gives Bintum a ride to Dakar.
The men get their pay in French francs. The bugle blows and the men get in line. The French francs will now be exchanged for CFA francs at the rate of 1,000 Metropolitan francs for 250 CFA francs, even though the usual rate is 500 CFA francs. The men become angry at this apparent cheating.
The major says something stupid. He asks how to we know if all that money wasnít stolen on the battlefields from the dead? Now the men really feel insulted, as well as cheated. Pays says if the major "cuts" the money, theyíll cut his prick!
Aloyse points out that the major insults men who fought every battle from For-Lamy, crossed the Tibesti and chased Mussoliniís soldiers at Kuffra in southern Libya. They were the first to enter Tripoli and the first to enter Paris in August 1944. The infantrymen belonged to the 7th French Army. They faced the 2nd Panzer Division. They fled to Dunkirk. The men were denied access to the ship to England.
While Aloyse makes his appeal for justice, Labrousse writes the word "communist" down on a sheet of paper and passes it around to the other officers. He tells the guards to chase the men away. The men start to approach the officers but they are protected by the guards.
The men go to their barracks. The sentiment seems to be that none of the men will accept the money under the current conditions. They say the whites didnít speak of gratuities, earnings or allowances. "They want to rob us of all that." So it is decided that each barracks will select a delegate and they will go see Sarge together.
The French officers confer with the general. Captain Raymond speaks up for the native troops, but he is the only one. He believes they must keep their word to the men. Raymond also says that they are robbing the 1,000 natives. Labrousse says the natives are being misled by Nazi leaders or perhaps communist leaders. The general decides to visit the camp the following day.
In the officerís mess no one will sit with Captain Raymond. They start talking about him outside. So Raymond gets up and closes the shutters so he wonít have to hear their master colonialist crap.
Next day the white soldiers go through Sargeís stuff. From the literature he has they conclude that he is a communist. One fellow says: "All the intellectuals are communists." Then they go through the barracks as a whole. One of the infantrymen yells that the whites are "fascists"!
The white soldiers find the money that was being given out to the infantrymen. These geniuses conclude it must have came from the Nazis in order to destabilize the French Empire. They are also searching for weapons. They confiscate the Nazi helmet. When Pays sees them coming out of the barracks with his helmet he goes crazy and chases them away. They drop the helmet.
The general arrives for his visit. He tells the men that some of them will be assigned to other units rather than be discharged. And the general will not budge on the issue of half-pay for the work they did. The men take the general prisoner. Itís November 30, 1944, 10:00 a.m.
Sarge refuses to tell his men to let the general go. Labrousse calls for the guards, but is told that they have no ammunition. The whites inform headquarters.
Captain Raymond arrives. Labrousse tells him to speak with the natives. Raymond speaks in private with Sarge. He says the way to do this is to call on the governor. Raymond says he will then tell the governor their grievances. He will also see the colonial minister in Paris. Sarge tells him: "A right is neither discussed nor negotiated." He says now they fight for Africa.
The general says the camp will be stormed. The corporal says if the camp is attacked, they will kill the general. The men want to know why the French only want to pay half of their wages? The general says he will pay the full rate. Pays says the general is lying.
The general repeats what he said to all the men. The men give a big hurrah and throw their caps in the air. The general leaves. Raymond congratulates the men. Raymond and Labrousse leave in a jeep. Pays climbs to the sentry tower to keep a look out. Lt. Pierre also leaves the camp. With him go the guards.
At night the men dance and sing. When they are tired they go to sleep. The French come at night to the camp. The attack will be done by tanks. Pays sees them and wakes everyone. But they think heís just crazy. Everyone goes back into the barracks. Not even the Sarge believes Pays.
December 1, 1944. 3:00 a.m. The tanks open fire. They start destroying the barracks. The men run out and are machine gunned by the tanks.
5:00 a.m. The survivors start burying the dead in a deep trench.
The general says that the colonial minister and the governor general support their action. The new recruits get onto the ship. Bintum is there with tears in her eyes.
Good movie. Damn those imperialists were bastards and that is clearly shown in this film set in Senegal under the French. The French use the black men to fight for them and the other primarily white Allies, make them a lot of promises and then when their term of service is over, they are of little interest to the imperialists. On pay day itself for the black troops, the French decide they will pay the men half of what they are owed. And they won't pay any gratuities, earnings or allowances. They house the men in barracks surrounded by barbed wire and sentries as though they were in some type of concentration camp. They feed them disgusting food. And so on and so on. And they never anticipate any real trouble from the black troops, because the weapons of the guards have no ammunition. There is only one Frenchman who believes in treating the men with respect, honor and justice. And that's not enough to influence colonialist military policy.
The movie paints the French as being self-deceiving because they don't realize the very negative effects of their actions on the native population and very foolish, because they underestimated the anger their racist and colonialists policies would engender in those being oppressed. Ah, never underestimate the ability of human beings to use and exploit others for their own benefits. And that's pretty much the story of humans in a nut shell.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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