CAMP DE THIAROYE (Ousmane Sembène, Thierno Faty Sow, 1987)

During the Second World War, French-colonized West Africans were recruited by the army and fought with distinction. In late 1944, instead of being paid and sent home to their countries and communities, they were detained in a prison camp in Dakar. When they rebelled against the French military’s intention to pay them at half-rate, they were massacred. Camp de Thiaroye, written and directed by Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow, ends as the French military congratulates itself and ships a load of new black recruits for military training in France.
     This long, engrossing, occasionally powerful work is serious and substantial; Senegal’s Sembène is incapable of the sort of pop trash that sinks Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes (2006), which engages related material. Camp de Thiaroye is, among other things, far-ranging in its consideration of white versus black and Europe versus colonized Africa. For example, after having been ejected from a brothel because he is black African, not black American, Sergeant Major Diatta is stopped on the street by a jeep of American military police. These four men, who are black, beat up Diatta on the pretext that he doesn’t belong where they have found him; of course, they are exercising power that they do not have at home. Diatta’s arm is broken. Later, the lead MP meets with Diatta; they discuss the bond of blacks (versus that of whites) that their confrontation violated. In retaliation for what happened to Diatta, moreover, black soldiers kidnap a white American. What difference? He is an American! But the French military cannot tolerate retribution targeting a white Allied soldier!
     The massacre, launched in extreme long-shot by the stealthy approach of tanks in deep night, shatters. Even as I sat, it took the legs out from under me.

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