I have seen two other Ousmane Sembene films: Black Girl and Borom Sarret (1966). I showed one of my college writing classes Black Girl and I remember someone saying they were tired of the whole Black-White thing, and why couldn’t we just move past it. Well, sure, the film deals with issues of Black and White, but from a completely different context than we are used to in America. We are so egocentric that we think all issues originate and remain just with us. This is what I told that student. We, as Americans, are very naive like that. I’ve said this before.
I have to say that Ousmane Sembene, with Camp de Thiaroye, has presented the absolute best dramatically ironic film I have ever seen. As the film progresses, the viewer is struck by the clearly unstable environment the African infantrymen are in. They are not yet discharged from duty by the French, they are waiting on their pay and other benefits to be compensated, and they are continually challenging the authority of their French military superiors. I distinguish by saying ‘military superiors’ because rank is rank; but, we all know the French felt morally (and otherwise) superior to black Africans, and that is implied generally speaking.
The first instance of their insubordination is when they refuse to eat the slop they’ve been served at the Camp. The second instance is when they “form a commando” to blackmail the Americans, by abducting and imprisoning a white American soldier, so they will let Sergeant Major Diatta go. The Americans had captured him for no other reason than “walking while black.” The ironic thing is that it was a black American soldier who found Diatta to be an intellectual nuisance. Luckily, later the black American soldier came to Diatta to apologize. I see the problem as being cultural displacement on the part of the American–he didn’t want to relate to Diatta so he beat him up and abducted him because he essentially wanted to distance himself from “the other” of his ancestry.
As a side note, while the Americans were presented as warmongers, it was the French who were the clear Barbarians of this film.
The third and final insubordination was the worst: when the military officials tried to pull a fast one on the men by trying to give them half of the exchange rate for their pay, the men refused to take it and abducted the General (in the same way they had abducted the American soldier–by merely taking him over to one of the barrack houses and guarding him, without hurting him at all) as a way to put pressure on them to give them the right exchange rate.
As these scenes are unfolding, something is very clear to the viewer: that the African infantrymen are, first of all, good and moral men; second of all, they are men of integrity and camaraderie; third of all, despite being in the French infantry (and imprisoned in concentration camps for 2-3 years), they retained their old codes of honor OVER and above the code of honor (and rank) that was demanded of them from the French military. They were not ‘simple’ in the sense of stupid, but they were simple in that it was clear that once they got what they wanted, they’d give back what they’d taken as leverage or for bargaining power, and not think they’d done anything wrong. And they would assume that all would be forgiven. This is actually an amazing way to live life: to not hold grudges, to be happy with standing up for yourself, and to know you are on the moral up-and-up because you are a good person who has given up so much and asked so little in return.
But…when they abducted the General, they signed their own death warrants. When the General agrees to give them their expected rate of exchange, the mute soldier, Pays, knows he’s lying. So does the viewer. Pays, who is shell-shocked and who wears a Nazi helmet as a security blanket, is the only one who knows something bad is going to happen. And, like Pays, the viewer is just as mute. It is here that the dramatic irony begins its crescendo. When night has fallen and all are asleep and anxiously awaiting the pay they are “due”, the viewer knows that some things are too good to be true.
The lights from tanks break through the darkness, and when he realizes what is happening, because he has been keeping watch on one of the watchtowers (well, he techically fell asleep up there because perhaps even HE didn’t realize the absurdity of the BIG LIE–see Hannah Arendt–that was about to happen to them) Pays runs around banging on the barracks trying to mutely explain with hand gestures that tanks are outside the fence, but no one believes him. WHO could believe that the French would murder outright its loyal infantrymen who had suffered in concentration camps for France, just because they wanted their pay?! Just like, who could believe the BIG LIE of the Holocaust. It’s still hard to fathom either.
But the viewer knows, because like Pays, we have seen the tanks come up to and we can do nothing to help the men from their fate.
Before the men had gone to bed that night, they had had a big music gathering where everyone was singing and playing their make-shift instruments. Like Pays, who looked into the eyes of the Devil and saw him as the liar and trickster that he was, the viewer watches the music gathering with an intense feeling of dread for their impending doom. The thought that went through my mind during that scene was that at least they’d enjoyed their last evening on earth….
By the end, most of the African infantrymen were dead, and Sembene had made his point about the atrocities of the French with their racist colonial practices.
The film closes with a new batch of African infantrymen loading onto a boat, waving goodbye to their family members, and the one good white French officer looking around for Sgt. Major Diatta. This unsuspecting French officer had no idea that when he left Camp de Thiaroye the day before, the General would blow it up that night. And he certainly had no idea that the new batch of recruits he was in charge of would be subject to the same fate if they didn’t comply with inequality.
The final shot of the film was powerful. Diatta’s uncle and cousin (to whom he was supposed to be betrothed) were waiting at the docks for him with 10 kilos of coffee for Diatta’s white, French wife and their child together, back in Paris. The French officer was going to deliver the package to her for Diatta. Diatta’s uncle and cousin were looking around for Diatta, not knowing where he was, but standing there just the same. The ironic thing was that despite being betrothed to Diatta, his cousin was there to deliver the present for his wife and child. Ontop of the 10 kilo bag of coffee was a black doll for the child: a veritable symbol of acceptance of them as part of the family. This compounds the atrocity. Black African family accepts white Frenchwoman into the family, but the white French (collectively) won’t accept Black Africans as part of the human family of equality. It’s more important to annihilate based on military and colonial principle than it is to show reasonableness based on the principle of compassion and understanding.