AKA: The Camp at Thiaroye, Campo Thiaroye
Genre: War Drama
Year Released: 1988
Distributor: New Yorker Films
Running Time: 153 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 17+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Grave of the Fireflies, Emitai, Dajjal, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Birth of a Nation (2016)
-Some uncomfortable historical facts and the topic of colonialism will be discussed.
-Camp de Thiaroye won the Venice Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. Would you like to know what others films won that same award? A Streetcar Named Desire, Natural Born Killers, and Foxtrot to name a few.
-Nigerien/Senegalese musician Ismael Lo scored this film. His work was featured in Shake Hands with the Devil and has acted in Tableau Ferraille.
-Thiaroye was actually a real town in Senegal. Until being separated into three different towns in 1996, it was a suburb of Dakar. If Thiaroye were combined today, it would have approximately 169,000 people. Unfortunately, despite this film being a work of historical fiction, the massacre that happens in the film by the French army actually happened in that same area.
-This is the first trilingual film made by Ousmane Sembene. There are multiple pieces of dialogue in Wolof, French, and English.
-Camp in Thiaroye was actually banned in France for a decade and was actually censored in its original run in Senegal. Strike this under my list of movies that got censored or banned for stupid reasons. It seems to happen to me a lot on Iridium Eye.
I return to Ousmane Sembene’s work once again. This may be me repeating myself, but I’m so glad to have discovered him last year. He’s seriously one person that I should’ve learned about during my time taking film courses since he should be taught alongside other directors such as Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa, and Alfred Hitchcock to name a few. Unlike the previous films that I reviewed of his, I take on one of his 80s works as opposed to his earlier works in the 60s. This particular film would take place during one of the biggest topics used in period pieces: World War II. Unlike most mainstream films that take place during that time period (although in ways like certain films I did review and even praised), this covers aspects that don’t get talked about in history.
Ousmane Sembene managed to pull off a story based on real events that not many people would dare cover.
Camp de Thiaroye takes place during the final days of World War II. The story doesn’t take place in Europe, America, or Japan, but in colonial Senegal. The French army alongside their African regiment goes to the West African nation where both French and Africans celebrate their victory. They all go to a military camp in Thiaroye (hence the title) as they transition into life after the war. Things start out decently enough in the transitioning period until the African soldiers get food that’s so low-grade that they claim they could kill dogs or pigs while their white counterparts get the best food. There were tensions growing as they get mistreated by both French and Americans in and outside of the camp. The main member of the Senegalese platoon is Sargent Diatta who is more educated than most of the soldiers as well as having a French wife and biracial daughter back in Paris. He loves reading and can speak Wolof, French, and English fluently. Diatta is trying to adjust to life, but he deals with racist colonizers, abusive soldiers, finding out his village was razed by French soldiers while on his tour of duty, and seeing his comrades getting mistreated. Things get even more heated when inequality rears its ugly head right before the African soldiers get to go back to their respective villages and countries.
To be honest, I didn’t know that much Africa was affected by World War II other than the fact that several European nations still colonized multiple nations even decades after the Berlin Conference. What I didn’t realize was how much these soldiers were used by their colonizers while the nations who colonized them got all the credit and glory. This was certainly an eye-opening watch. Sure, things start out even-keeled before it slowly gets more tragic as time goes on as there’s bigotry in both overt and covert ways all while shortchanging these brave soldiers (one case becomes very literal in the final act) who traveled the world. This may have been a work of fiction, but I found everything to be so believable that I thought all those characters were real people then. There was a sobering balance between the literal and metaphorical portrayal of colonialism or racism. It was almost educational in a way like Diatta’s epic speech in the final act against the French Army when he finds out about the atrocities committed by them. While most Americans would write off that European nation as cheese-eating surrender monkeys during that war how one example comes from that comic meme of Captain America pointing to the A on his mask while saying “Does this A stand for France?”, but they did some Nazi-like things against the Africans during and even before WWII which they wouldn’t dare try that on the Axis powers even though there were several nations fighting for that nation. The hypocrisy even shows when the French generals claimed that they aren’t as rude or barbaric as the Americans or Germans behind closed doors. There was so much depth in the story and portrayal as it felt like a giant truth bomb. In real life, France didn’t even mention the real-life Thiaroye Massacre in their textbooks which really says a lot about the textbook authors or the culture by denying this atrocity. The Africans getting shortchanged reminded me of how African-American soldiers got nothing after fighting the World Wars as well as some of them being lynched in uniform. That really puts things into perspective over there. Besides the storytelling and the real-life elements, this had great things going for it from a production standpoint. The music certainly added to the mood like the harmonica being used as the main instrument during the shell-shocked soldier Pays having moments of paranoia after surviving Buchenwald. There’s also classical music and some Senegalese acapella tracks used as well. The cinematography worked with its realistic and organic camera work. While it’s not the most high-budgeted work, this was a huge improvement over all the other Sembene films I saw regardless of their age or not. Camp de Thiaroye succeeds on multiple levels especially after not watching a lot of movies for weeks (everything else before this review was scheduled a long time ago).
This Sembene work could use some redirection here and there. While Sembene’s knack for anti-colonialism storylines is hard-hitting, I felt like the message got too overt at times. Black Girl and Mandabi were more subtle in their approach which I did appreciate and while the aspects of the French army needed to be called out, some of the dialogue got didactic for me. Things got really obvious with the racial slurs spoken or how the higher-ups would casually call their African soldiers “big children” and save them from “barbarism”. There were also way too many characters to keep track of. There were unnamed soldiers, ones where their names were mentioned once or twice during the entire two-and-a-half-hour run time, or they had nicknames based on what country they were from (“Congo”, “Gabon”, “Ivory Coast/Cote D’Ivoire”, etc.). That also goes for their white counterparts as I had a hard time keeping track of the names as well as the chain of command. I also thought the subplot of Diatta’s village being destroyed in backstory and off-screen felt like it should’ve had a much larger effect on his character. Other than a scene in the first act where the female members of his family inform him and are ashamed of his interracial marriage, that part wasn’t brought up as much except for a couple other times in passing. I could see the foreshadowing aspects, but a storyline like that should’ve really hit harder.
Camp de Thiaroye was a gut check of a war drama that isn’t so much about WWII in itself, but rather a side to the story that needed to be told. The realist cinema was on point and the interactions in numerous facets of the soldiers’ lives were very believable. It was also a very brave film to watch to see a part of history that wasn’t talked about. A story like this could’ve only been told by someone on the continent. However, the anti-colonial message got too preachy and they could’ve tightened up on some of the backstories. With that said, Camp de Thiaroye was still incredibly powerful in its tragic aspects.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you like edgy period pieces or you’re an Ousmane Sembene fan.
Subtract 1-2 points if you don’t like WWII movies that show Allied powers being less than noble.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want more fighting or military action in your war dramas.
-Powerful and realistic story based on the Thiaroye Massacre
-Good naturalist cinematography
-Impactful musical score
-Too big of a cast
-Dropped subplot about Diatta’s home village
-Preachy anti-colonizing dialogue
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: Camp de Thiaroye is better suited for older audiences. There’s violence on different levels like fistfights, livestock being slaughtered in a close-up shot (it’s actually one of the goriest scenes in the movie), and the eventual massacre in the finale of the movie. The language is very strong in all three languages spoken in this movie with multiple F-bombs and the N-word being used multiple times. There’s a brief scene of nudity in the middle of the film and one scene involves a brothel owned by French people living in Senegal. Since this is WWII, there’s mentioning of the Holocaust, people dying in horrific ways, and the character Pays is severely disturbed to the point of only talking in grunts and unintelligible yelling. The elements of colonizing and racism get very in your face, too.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Camp de Thiaroye is property of New Yorker Films. The poster is from IMDb and is property of New Yorker Films.