The contradictory Tirailleur in African film

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Through the magic of cinema, History sheds the coldness of the historian’s pen, taking on an immediacy which gives it sensitivity. African filmmakers often use the character of the Tirailleur to evoke relations with the West. Hence, in Toubab bi (Moussa Touré, Senegal, 1992), the Tirailleur is a caricatural figure, who waxes lyrical about the harshness of the war, but who is proud to have fought in it. Torn between military pride, and the ingratitude of the torturer who forced him to wage war in the land of coldness and death, he illustrates the ambiguity of the relation with the West, which is experienced as a dream and a nightmare at the same time. Even though he is treated like an old fogy who goes on and on alongside the elder whom the main character goes to see before leaving for Europe, he is there to remind us that the journey is not neutral: both an opportunity for discoveries, and also for dangers.
He is also there to say, humorously, that Africa is too wrapped up in dreams of an elsewhere, for example the Tirailleur in Sarzan (Momar Thiam, Senegal, 1963, based on a short story by Birago Diop):
« The commander is asking you to ally what is good in what you saw in Europe with what is good in your village.
– You clearly want to graft two mango trees!
– That’s absolutely right, my friend! »
More recently, the Gabonese Imunga Ivanga, himself son of a Tirailleur, examines four former « voluntarily recruits' » highly contradictory motivations for going in Les Tirailleurs d’ailleurs (1998). Gone to discover the world, their courage and services rendered were to be rewarded only with contempt.
One of them evokes the shock that the Thiaroye Camp tragedy represented in Africa, which the Senegalese Ousmane Sembène made a feature film about (Camp de Thiaroye, 1985). In his description of the Tirailleurs’ revolt, and its repression by the French army in the Senegalese camp where they were awaiting the payment of their indemnities, and their demobilization in 1944, Sembène not only offers another reading of History by placing the accent on a dramatic episode which the colonial master has deformed or encouraged us to forget, he tackles the post-colonial imagination. Whilst not ignoring the scandal of the non-payment of the bonuses and arrears, he re-centres his discourse on racism, thus conferring a universality on his film which goes beyond the simple historic event.
The whole film is marked by this intent. The historic facts become symbolic of it: forcing the Tirailleurs to take off their American uniforms and to put back on their tarboosh reduces them to their humiliating condition of colonized Africans, whereas the same-coloured Afro-American sergeant is not subjected to this discrimination; the unfair exchange rate applied to their savings (250 FCFA for 1000 FF, instead of 500 FCFA) demonstrates, as Sergeant Diatta stresses, that there are « two rules in the army, one for the Blacks, the other for the Whites »; the disgusting food given to them suggests that they are racially inferior; the evocation of their past hardships indicates the contempt with which they are treated…
The barbed-wire which surrounds the camp is demonstrative of this exclusion, this internal imprisonment bordering on madness – an insanity embodied by the character « Pays », played by Sidiki Bakaba, whose dumbness caused by the trauma of the war turns out to be a highly lucid madness, as he warns his fellow soldiers of the dangers that they do not realize they risk. He, who ritually carries out the cult of the ancestors by pouring a little of his drink on the ground, refuses to believe General Dagnan’s promises when the Tirailleurs take him hostage.
By subverting the dominant presentation of History, Sembène thus goes beyond the simple question of injustice to challenge the racism which causes it. It is hardly surprising that he had to get the funding for his film in the South, thereby realizing one of the rare all-African co-productions (Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal). His real subject is not the rebellion itself, but the way in which it is inscribed in the long History of African resistance in order to gain human dignity.
The Tirailleurs speak a destructured, remodelled French amongst themselves, which is a translation of their own national languages. This reference to the diversity of their origins is humorously reiterated by the names they give themselves: Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Sénégal… The language of the oppressor thus remains their only language of communication, but here they reappropriate it. Unlike the Tirailleurs, Sergeant Diatta belongs to the cultural in-between: the mastering of languages, a career in the French army, Western culture, and a white wife. He has to choose his identity, to take sides. Sembène here re-articulates the point he constantly makes in his other films: faced with neo-colonialism, the radicalism of rejection imposes, manifesting a belonging to the clan of the oppressed, who will only be able to advance through Pan-Africanism.
This binary vision of History, served by a narrative mode which excludes all contradiction, does a disservice to the film and its indispensable exploration of memory, unlike the contradictory character of the Tirailleur portrayed by the other filmmakers. (1)

(1) Cf Kenneth W. Harrow, Camp de Thiaroye: Who’s That Hiding in Those Tanks, and How Come We Can’t See Their Faces? in Iris nº 18, Spring 1995, on this question, who argues that the film deliberately avoids evoking the presence of Senegalese Tirailleurs in the tanks which shot at the camp, analyzing the film as a product of the ideology of Negritude. « the implied cinematic narrator », he writes, is placed « in a position of knowledge and puts the cinema in a position of carrier of that knowledge, one which the spectator accepts because of its apparent transparency conveyed through the well-known techniques associated with the genre. »///Article N° : 5433

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