BadAzz MoFo celebrates Black History Month 2012 by focusing on Black Cinema—a look at the films, filmmakers, and actors that have contributed to the black diaspora in film.
In a career that spanned more than 40 years, acclaimed African director Ousmane Sembene only made a total of 14 films, the best of which would arguably have to be 1988’s Camp de Thiaroye. Set in Senegal in 1944, Sembene’s film finds a platoon of African soldiers returning from combat in World War II, where they have fought for the French. Although the soldiers served loyally, they are treated like prisoners of war, held at a military camp with no freedom of movement, waiting for their back pay that never seems to arrive. Having suffered the horrors of war, the racism and mounting indignities build until the situation reaches a critical mass. When the soldiers stand up for themselves, demanding respect and the money they are owed, the French Army reacts by brutally killing the Africans in what has historically been remembered as the Thiaroye Massacre.
Based on true events, in which the French actually executed African soldiers that had served in World War II, Camp de Thiaroye is a landmark film of anti-colonialism and anti-war. It is also one of the best films to emerge from Africa by an African director. Sembene has crafted a film populated with memorable characters that on the surface feels like something akin to The Great Escape. In fact, Sembene is so deftly skilled as a storyteller that his personal politics never get in the way of the story itself, even though the deeper implications of the what he is saying is always simmering beneath the surface, like a pot of water coming to a slow boil. A mix of drama, with bittersweet comedy, the film is a steady build of anti-colonialism that never seems heavy-handed, but in the end delivers a powerful blow that is emotionally devastating.
Although Sembene made several great films, this was in many ways his best and most personal. Sembene himself had been drafted and served in the French Army, and to that end the film is a semi-autobiographical account of the racism and discrimination he faced during his tour of duty. Camp de Thiaroye is a brilliant film that is emotionally dense and culturally rich, and well worth tracking down.