- Fighting for the Homeland?The Second World War in the Films of Ousmane Sembene
Towards the end of Ousmane Sembene's film Emitaï (1971), set in the Casamance region of southern Senegal during the Second World War, a messenger arrives in a village occupied by the French colonial army, which is there to requisition rice for its men. The messenger brings news of a change in regime in the metropolitan 'center' of the French Empire, resulting in the hasty removal of posters of Marshall Pétain, one of which had stood framed behind the French commander when he had earlier sent the young African conscripts off to war, and their replacement by posters of General Charles de Gaulle (see opposite). The colonial troops, the tirailleurs sénégalais, who had led the conscripts away to the strains of Maréchal, nous voilà, are extremely confused at this sudden change of authority, and an indignant, disbelieving tirailleur (played by none other than Sembene himself) asks his African NCO to explain how a mere "Général de brigade" could possibly replace a "Maréchal": "Où tu as vu deux étoiles commander sept étoiles?" Sembene thus presents the change in regime from Vichy to Free France as entirely cosmetic, the replacement of one remote image or figurehead by another. It is no coincide that this change in regime occurs just minutes before the film's final sequence, in which the men of the village are gunned down by the colonial troops for refusing to hand over the rice. In essence, the spectator is invited to perceive a fundamental continuity between the colonial policies of Vichy and Free France.
Recent historical analysis by Eric Jennings and Ruth Ginio, amongst others, has produced a rather different picture of Vichy rule in the colonies, and has emphasised the particularly repressive form of colonialism practised by Pétain's government.1 Historians have long commented on the pivotal role played by the Second World War as a catalyst for decolonization. However, both Jennings and Ginio move beyond the general arguments that the fall of France in 1940, and the subsequent reliance on colonial troops to liberate the 'homeland', simply led to a decline in France's prestige in the eyes of its colonized subjects. In particular, Jennings argues that "the years 1940 to 1944 contributed to decolonization in a much more tangible way, by ushering in a reductionist ideology and a new, harsher brand of colonialism, which both [End Page 56] directly and indirectly fuelled indigenous nationalism" (Jennings 2). This article will analyse two films by Sembene that are set during the Second World War, Emitaï and Camp de Thiaroye (1988),2 films which, by turns, both contradict and confirm the historical interpretation proposed by Jennings and Ginio. Although Sembene underlines the continuity between colonial rule under Vichy and the Free French, he is nonetheless aware that Vichy permitted the development of a more nakedly racist system, as is illustrated by the opposition between the progressive Captain Raymond and the intransigent local commanders in Camp de Thiaroye. However, Sembene's fundamental argument is that France's behaviour in its colonies was a profound betrayal of the allegedly 'universal' principles of the French Republic: the excesses and ambiguities of the Vichy period merely served to reinforce this fact.
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Both films focus on the role of the tirailleurs sénégalais, who, despite their name, were in fact drawn from France's colonial territories right across the continent.3 The tirailleurs sénégalais are inherently ambiguous figures, for they can be viewed both as the agents of French colonialism—France's African Empire was largely built by French officers leading local recruits— [End Page 57] and also as its victims, especially in relation to the First and Second World Wars, in which the tirailleurs gave their lives for the metropolitan 'homeland', only to rediscover their status as mere colonial subjects once the war was over. The figure of the ancien tirailleur has...