historical truth

Even with Omar Sy, film ‘Tirailleurs’ misses its post-colonial opportunity

By Karfa Diallo

Posted on January 13, 2023 10:45

 In “Tirailleurs” (Shooters), Omar Sy plays Bakary Diallo, who joined the French army to protect his son, also a soldier © Gaumont Distribution.
In “Tirailleurs” (Shooters), Omar Sy plays Bakary Diallo, who joined the French army to protect his son, also a soldier © Gaumont Distribution.

In the new feature film directed by Mathieu Vadepied, only two languages are used: Wolof and Fulani. How long will we let ourselves be misled by the reductive term “Senegalese riflemen”?

The promotional and media machine of two giants – the co-producers of the film Tirailleurs (English title: Father & Soldier) Omar Sy and Gaumont – is in full swing, ready to surf on the sentiments of injustice held by sub-Saharan diasporas in France and elsewhere.

Although sneak previews of the film were successful, its January wide release should raise fundamental questions that this feature – which sets out to repair the injustice done by French cinema to the history of indigenous fighters – has nevertheless made the mistake of neglecting the role played by sub-Saharans in French wars, in favour of a narrower vision.

It’s true that the audience at the Dakar preview was won over in advance. Omar Sy’s father is from there [his mother is Mauritanian] and the Senegalese – thanks to their connections, their active diaspora, their excellent historians and their political activism – take up prominent space in the French neo-colonial imagination.

To such an extent that all African veterans of the world wars are referred to by the same term: “Senegalese tirailleur” (Senegalese rifleman or skirmisher in English), an expression that is the object of my wrath and that of many other Sub-Saharans who despair at this persistent artistic, intellectual and political laziness. [Editor’s Note: the military term was originally coined under Napoleon Bonaparte to describe light infantry skirmishers].

A little-told story

If we try to contextualise the film, it’s hard not to be seduced by the ambition displayed in the face of the existent creative void around this founding tale of French diversity.

More than 200,000 riflemen, forcibly recruited or enlisted throughout Africa, fought on the fronts of WWI and WWII. More than 30,000 lost their lives, nearly 200 died in France’s largest naval disaster with the sinking of the liner Afrique, hundreds were shot by the French army for rebellion during WWII, notably at Thiaroye in the Dakar suburbs, and tens of thousands returned disabled or wounded.

Added to this toll were the thousands who succumbed to the cold in the Adoma hostels in the Paris region when veterans’ pensions were frozen – with the aforementioned obligation to spend six long months in France in order to receive a more dignified allowance.

Few books have been written about this tragic but heroic story, and even fewer films made. And in this respect, the bet of the creators of Tirailleurs – shot for the most part in Africa – is audacious, worthy of respect and encouragement. Guiding filmgoers along the ridge between popular epic film and intimate tale allows us to identify with the fate of this sacrificed African youth. An approach to identification that nevertheless remains fragmented.

A single term for very different realities

For the coloniser, the indigenous Black man, the colonised, had neither his own identity nor his own civilisation. The battalions of sub-Saharan soldiers requisitioned by the former colonial power were in fact incorrectly called “Senegalese riflemen”. The coloniser remains stuck on the racialist image of the Senegalese, i.e. the African he knows best, whom he first promoted and “integrated” into the world of the colonial, neo-colonial and post-colonial elites.

Whether in Dakar or in French theatres, the public is unlikely to notice the incomprehensible – and inadmissible – shortcuts in which this fiction indulges, missing the post-colonial appointment that should be required of any narrative on the place of Africans in the construction of globalisation. The plurality of the men who were aligned on the fronts of French wars should be visible, or at least suggested, in any work of fiction on the subject.

In Tirailleurs, French troops burst into the Fulani village of Bakary Diallo (Omar Sy) to forcibly recruit young soldiers, including his 17-year-old son, Thierno (Alassane Diong). Bakary in turn joins the French army to protect his son. Sent to the front, father and son take on the war together. Their destiny will intersect with those of other ‘skirmishers’ from the eight colonies of French West Africa (AOF), who will never be heard from, eternal extras in history which, until the 21st century, struggled to integrate them and to move beyond the limits of the former AOF capital, stammering between Wolof and Fulani.

In light of the evolution of the collective consciousness, the film’s stated ambition and knowledge of current events, this betrayal is unacceptable. The crucial dilemma faced by the skirmisher Bakary Diallo, who was forcibly enlisted but is gradually seduced by the French military meritocracy, is not exclusively Senegalese, as the only two African languages heard in the film – Fulani and Wolof – might suggest.

Dozens of African languages stifled

The exchanges between the Fulani protagonists are systematically translated throughout the film and Wolof is heard in the camp setting where the skirmishers are waiting for the enemy’s assault. But who, among the many Western viewers, will notice that these two African languages are almost exclusively Senegalese?

How many will wonder why the directors and producers, obviously aware of the need to deconstruct the image of the tirailleur, chose to drown out the dozens of other African languages heard during WWI and WWII: Bambara, Hausa, Dioula, Fon, Baoule, Bété, Malinké, etc.?

Is this a minor detail? Should we ignore it in order to let ourselves be intoxicated by the commitment and sincerity of the creators of the film, which is certainly incomplete, but still dares to revisit the traumas of French colonial history? Can we continue to ignore the feeling of injustice that many Sub-Saharans hold inside when faced with the quasi-exclusive place occupied by the Senegalese and their diaspora in colonial, neo-colonial and post-colonial memory? Aren’t there technical ways to reflect the whole historical truth?

On 14 December, Omar Sy told France 3 that with Tirailleurs, he wanted to understand and make us feel “the violence of being dropped into a place where we understand nothing, into a conflict of which we understand nothing and since we don’t speak the language, [it] can’t be explained to us.” He added: “Everything is foreign to us. We don’t know why we are here. All the Senegalese tirailleurs did not speak the same language! [They] were Black colonised people, not necessarily Senegalese. They didn’t even know who they were at war with.”

So why, then, did he choose to include only two Senegalese languages in the film he co-produced?

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