Criterion Prediction #228: Camp de Thiaroye, by Alexander Miller
Title: Camp de Thiaroye
Director: Ousmene Sembene, Thierno Faty Sow
Cast: Sidiki Bakaba, Ibrahim Sane, Hamed Camara, Phillipe Chamelat
Synopsis: Camp de Thiaroye is a fact-inspired narrative recounting the events leading up to the massacre at Camp Thiaroye, where French forces conspired and orchestrated the killing of an entire camp of Senegeles Tirailleur soldiers after their infantry service in WWII.
Critique: In what could have been a grating experience where we’re smothered by a gut-punch of historical atrocities, Sembene and co-director Sow winnow a deliberately paced and straight-forward aesthetic delivery, crafting an ambitious yet uncompromising epic. There’s an undeniable commitment to the material and its historical urgency. Clearly, the true story where the systematic, mass-execution of innocent infantrymen (some survived combat, others Nazi camps) orchestrated by the French military is one of political and personal significance to Sembene. While Camp de Thiaroye doesn’t have the scratchy, rough-hewn veracity of Black Girl or the subtly serious, sleight-of-hand comedy of Xala or Guelwaar, it’s helmed with a remarkable sense of control and a dissociative luster. You can’t link Camp de Thiaroye to anything outside the immediate story. There isn’t the swish of cross-cultural allusions or metaphorical pushing; this operates with a self-explanatory exigence and threadbare aesthetic that pivots between neo-realism and army epic. Featuring a large cast, a spare, remote military base location and a constant sense of looming dread, the film gradually hooks you with its seemingly banal interactions. Still, Sembene is working up his characters and weaving a routine of incarceration and the redundancies of military life. Leading the cast is the angular, tall, and gently composed Sane. At the same time most of the black soldiers are shepherded about as detainees, Sane’s character, Diatta, has more freedom as he is higher in rank. His education and penchant for the arts elevate him in the eyes of his superiors.
Diatta listens to classical music (and Charlie Parker), speaks Wolof and perfect French and English and is eager to return to his French wife and kid. He has his separate quarters while the other men are essentially prisoners and yet he embodies this selfless gait despite his abandoning his native culture. He’s radiant in this simple pacifism as if the war was “good ” for him; even when he’s beaten and mistakenly held captive by American MPs, he returns to the titular camp unaffected despite his arm being in a cast. Contrasting the mellow Diatta is the PTSD-addled Cass (Sidika Bakaba), a survivor of the Nazi camps who can only speak through a mixture of grizzled moans and growls while sporting a collected SS helmet. The gulf of war and its psychological effects are best represented by Diatta and Cass. The two leading characters are opposites; it’s decidedly non-derivative.
When they arrive at camp, the food is inedible; the superior officers rebuff their rights despite the fact that they fought alongside each other as equals during the war. When it comes time for the Senegalese soldiers to receive their service pay, the French superiors try to shorten their returns via conversion rates. While Sembene and Sow build to an inevitably tragic climax, it’s hard to resist the slow-burning lull that is cast over you. Camp de Thiaroye might be didactic but with such incendiary material, is it fair to consider that a strike against the movie? A driving indictment of colonialism and an illuminating treatise on the horrors committed during a time of war and colonialism, Camp de Thiaroye is vital political cinema.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: There have been plenty of rumors that more Sembene is on its way to The Criterion Collection. The first titles that come to mind in the Sembene conversation are usually Borom Sarret (likely because it’s streaming on The Criterion Channel) and Xala (see CP129). It feels like this is a case where Criterion is going to inherit the lot of Sembene’s work. However, this is mostly speculation. If you look at the director’s life on home video you can see that a lot of his work was first available on DVD thanks to first-generation distributors like New Yorker video. The case was the same for Black Girl and, as of now, it’s the same for Camp de Thiaroye. Let’s hope this film follows the same path as Black Girl.