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CAMP DE THIAROYE (director/writer: Ousmane Sembene and Thierno Faty Sow; cinematographer: Ismail Lakhdar Hamina; editor: Kahena Attia Riveill; music: Ismaila Lo; cast: Sijiri Bakaba (Pays), Ibrahima Sane (Sergeant Major Aloise Diatta), Jean-Daniel Simon (Captain Raymond); Runtime: 152; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Mamadou Mbengue/Mustapha Ben Jemia/Ouzid Dahmane; New Yorker Films; 1987-Senegal-Algeria-Tunisia-in Wolof/French/English with English subtitles)
“The tragic events at Camp De Thiaroye serve as a powerful indictment of colonialism.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

African writer/directors Ousmane Sembene and Thiermo Faty Sow base this forceful epic political drama on their own experiences (Sembene was a soldier during WW II). It’s a fact-based powerhouse of a story that deals with injustice, hypocrisy, colonialism, racism and a massacre (with an Eisenstein-like slaughter on the Odessa Steps having nothing on this film’s slaughter of soldiers by their own). Novelist-turned-filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (“Black Girl”/”Xala”/”Moolaad√©”) has come up with a stunningly brilliant film that shows the white oppression resuming again as the natives return from the European warfront where they faced death every day for their fatherland only to now face indignities and racism from the French they just liberated from fascism.

Returning to African soil for the first time in five years, a close-knit group of Senegalese infantrymen together since 1939 are lauded as heroic liberators by the white French officers in Dakar. They are stationed in November 1944 in a transit camp called Camp De Thiaroye, that is more like a POW camp than an army barracks (it has barbed wire barriers to separate the whites from the blacks). They are waiting to be discharged and paid, but feel slighted when served foul food without meat while the white French soldiers are served meat and fresh food. After going on a hunger strike, the rebellion is quelled quietly by the racist white officers as the men get their own meat in town. When their affable Senegalese leader, Sergeant Major Aloise Diatta (Ibrahima Sane), an avid reader of serious European authors, a classical music and jazz lover, an introspective intellectual who has studied in France and speaks a perfect Wolof, French and English, and is married to a white French woman (who remains in Paris with their daughter), goes into Dakar to get a drink in a brothel–he’s given the boot when told no blacks allowed. On the Dakar streets, wearing an American khaki uniform that was given to his group because the French couldn’t supply them with new uniforms, he’s mistaken for an American thief and roughed up by the American MPs who are sorely remiss in their questioning techniques. When Diatta doesn’t return to the barracks that night, his loyal black soldiers kidnap the next day an American GI sergeant and hold him overnight until their man is returned the next morning–albeit with a broken arm courtesy of a black MP from Detroit. But things get even more hairy when the Senegalese troops discover that they’re about to be cheated out of half their back pay and kidnap the commanding general, demanding their just pay before releasing him.

Unfortunately too many of the characters are schematic, such as the one good French officer (Jean-Daniel Simon) among all the other evil ones (maybe because that’s the way it has to be in order to be real!). There’s also an African soldier named Pays (Sijiri Bakaba), who survived a concentration camp and is now touched in the head, mute and used as a symbol for the culturally downtrodden who can still feel the pain of everyone who was humiliated and tortured (his name means country in French). But fortunately the film overcomes its contrivances and didactic moments, and is intellectually honest, authentic and passionate. Obviously in sympathy with the Senegalese victims of racism, the tragic events at Camp De Thiaroye serve as a powerful indictment of colonialism.

It won the Special Jury Prize at Venice.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”