Senegal: ‘We don’t have the same memory, but we have the same history’ says Omar Sy

By Renaud de Rochebrune
Posted on Friday, 27 May 2022 10:14

"Tirailleurs", by Mathieu Vadepied, French release in November 2022 © DR

For the first time, the fate of the Senegalese riflemen who served in WWI is the subject of a mainstream film. One of France’s favourite actors, international star Omay Sy produced and stars in ‘Tirailleurs’ (Shooters).

“We don’t have the same memory, but we have the same history,” said Omar Sy on the stage at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, just before the world premiere of Tirailleurs, which opened the section Un Certain Regard’s official selection.

His phrase will no doubt attain cult status – not only on the Croisette but around the world – as all forms of international media picked it up. Sy couldn’t have uttered a more judicious truth to evoke the issue at the heart of the film, which tells the history of the Senegalese riflemen by focusing on the destiny of two of them: a father and son. The famous French actor both produced and starred in this film.

Translation: “We don’t have the same memory, but we have the same history…” 

Omar SY before the screening on 18 May of Mathieu VADEPIED’s TIRAILLEURS, in Opening #UnCertainRegard #Cannes2022 @OmarSy

Mother tongue

Sy has been backing this project for over ten years. In 2011, when he was shooting the feature film Intouchables (Untouchables), which would make him a star, he and cinematographer Mathieu Vadepied, who at the time dreamed of becoming a director, discussed a still vague project that was close to both of their hearts: the story of the Senegalese riflemen on the front line – particularly in Verdun – during World War II.

Little by little, the project took shape. Sy, who initially had planned to “only” be a producer, and was going to play the son, Thierno ended up portraying Bakary, the father.

Wanting to perform in his mother tongue, the language he has always spoken with his parents, he speaks Fulani throughout the film.

Unsmiling anti-hero

Although he put on a good show on the steps of the Palais des Festivals as well as onstage in the Salle Debussy, Sy is much more restrained on the big screen.

He doesn’t smile even once. It seems his character is as much a hero – we see him risking his life when he crawls out of his trench to recover the body of a fellow soldier killed by the Germans – as an anti-hero.

Translation: “Tirailleurs” last night at the opening of the Un Certain Regard selection 

@Festival_Cannes Pride 🙏🏿

Forcibly recruited from his village in Senegal, Sy’s character Bakary only joins the French army in an attempt to organise his son’s desertion. And then – when that becomes impossible – he stays to protect him, since Bakary has promised his wife he’ll bring their son back alive. He fails twice. Because Thierno, caught up in war games at the front, sees himself as a heroic soldier and risks everything to conquer a strategic hill held by the enemy. He is eventually recognised by his French officer and promoted to a higher rank than his father.

Filling a void

The film is both a poignant document of the riflemen’s experience, told from their point of view, and the portrait of a father and son: sometimes subdued, sometimes engaged in open conflict. Unfortunately, this artistic decision means that the riflemen’s story is not explored as much as one might like.

Of course there was no need, as Sy rightly says, to “crush the story” under “its historical context”, but by concentrating too much on Thierno and Bakary’s family history and its avatars on the one hand, and on the other on many terrible yet unoriginal war scenes, the  film often gives the impression of having forgotten its specific subject matter.

In fact, it almost seems to be encouraging the viewer to standardise both history – which appears to be the same for everyone – and his or her experience.

By deciding, with the director, that Tirailleurs should be “a war film with a lot of peace”, has Sy created a work that is too calm to tackle such a subject?

Unlike Ousmane Sembene and his masterpiece Camp de Thiaroye, which tells the dramatic story of the riflemen who were cheated and, in some cases, massacred by the French army when they were demobilised after World War II, Tirailleurs is a film that encourages the reconciliation of memories. Nevertheless, telling Thierno and Bakary’s story, even in this conventional form, does more than just serve a useful purpose, since it is the first film on the subject of the tirailleurs made available to a wide audience. This void needed to be filled. It has been done in a commendable way.

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