A historical fiction based on the Thiaroye transit camp massacre in 1944, Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow’s Camp de Thiaroye dismantles the myth of colonial assimilation to expose ingrained social and cultural mechanisms of racism, exploitation, and privilege. The disconnection is implied in the film’s opening image of West African colonial troops (Tirailleurs Sénégalais) disembarking at a port in Dakar wearing donated U.S. army uniforms amid patriotic chants in praise of the republic and Charles de Gaulle, having been sent back by their military leaders with only rags to wear for the homecoming and repatriation. Like their borrowed clothing, their identity within colonial French society is also ambiguous, arbitrarily defined by the immediate and self-serving needs of a myopic republic. Having spent his entire career in the military, commanding officer, Captain Raymond (Jean-Daniel Simon) only sees the men as soldiers in his charge and, in his egalitarian idealism, seems oblivious to the broader implications of his country’s transgressions against the colonies (in an early encounter, Raymond’s attempt to greet an infantryman, Diatta’s [Iprahima Sane] relatives in their native language is met with a brusque handshake, subsequently breaking the news that their ancestral village had been destroyed by French troops acting under Vichy orders in 1942).
In turn, Diatta embodies the myth of altruistic colonial mandate. College educated, fluent in several Western languages, and having achieved a certain degree of assimilation by marrying a French woman, Diatta has seemingly transcended the limitations of his station by being promoted from within the ranks and acting as a liaison between the officers and the native soldiers (primarily due to his ability to speak proper French). But even in his acculturation, Diatta is not immune from the inherent racism and subjugation of colonialism. Housed in a barbed wire-enclosed transit camp along with other infantrymen while officers retreat to more comfortable accommodations at a nearby hotel, served inedible gruel that falls even below the standard of concentration camp food (the meat rations having been set aside for French personnel), and thrown out of a bar in the red light district when the hostess realizes that he is not an American serviceman, Diatta is constantly reminded of his “place” in colonial society.
Perhaps the most emblematic of the tirailleurs’ (and more broadly, the indigenous Africans’) entrenched marginalization lies in the image of the infantrymen being stripped of their new army khakis for replacement with worn colonial uniforms (their used condition reinforcing the idea of inherited disenfranchisement) – inequitable exchanges that echo the ravaged landscapes left behind by colonialism’s cycle of exploited resources. Invoking the image of the U.S. through the donated garments, Sembène and Sow insightfully frame the soldiers’ odyssey within the context of individual transformation embodied by the American ideals of equality and racial integration. In a sense, the soldiers’ mutiny against the government’s unfair wage exchange rates reflects an empowerment and assertion of identity that is paradoxically symbolized by borrowed clothes – an enlightenment and self-awareness realized, not through the donning of new masks, but from the shedding of imposed costumes.
© Acquarello 2008. All rights reserved.
First published in The Auteur’s Notebook, 11/26/08.