Movie Honors the African Soldiers France Tried to Forget

The success of “Tirailleurs,” set in the mire and mayhem of World War I, has helped resurface the often neglected story of colonial soldiers forced to take up somebody else’s fight.

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By Roger Cohen

Reporting from Paris

With more than one million viewers in its first month in theaters, a movie called “Tirailleurs,” or “Riflemen,” has touched a nerve in France by bringing attention to a neglected aspect of the nation’s history: the decisive role played in two World Wars by African soldiers, many forcibly conscripted in French colonies.

Heated debate and public soul searching has surrounded the movie. Much of the action unfolds during World War I in the cold, muddy trenches of northern and eastern France, a climate and a culture utterly foreign to the disoriented African conscripts who take orders from white officers. (In the United States, the movie’s title is “Father and Soldier.”)

In scenes of mist, mire and mayhem, countless lives are lost for the gain of a few hundred yards or a single hill. The grotesqueness of the sacrifice seems compounded for the Africans dragooned into fighting somebody else’s war. From 1914 to 1918, more than 30,000 of the “tirailleurs,” as they were known, were killed.

Released last month, the movie, directed by Mathieu Vadepied, stars Omar Sy, a French actor propelled to international fame through his leading role in “Lupin,” a Netflix thriller series.

Sy plays a Senegalese village farmer who enrolls voluntarily in the French forces to watch over a son, played by Alassane Diong, who is snatched from his sunlit rural home by France’s colonial army and made to fight in the war.

Rising from French trenches, father and son charge into no-man’s lands of shells and bullets — a form of attritional combat that Europe appeared to have banished before war returned to the continent a century later in the killing fields of eastern Ukraine.

For more than a century, from 1857 to 1960, soldiers from Senegal, as well as from Algeria, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Tunisia and elsewhere in Africa, fought for France in colonial wars in Africa, in the trenches of World War I, in the World War II campaign to defeat the Nazis and in wars in Indochina and Algeria.

That history was long repressed. Official disinterest, obfuscation, dismissiveness and stereotyping, tinged with apparent racism, accompanied the story of France’s Black soldiers to the point that it was only on the day of the release of the movie that the French authorities acted to remove a last small humiliation inflicted on the tirailleurs.

The government announced that 37 survivors, men mostly in their 90s who had fought in French wars in Indochina and Algeria, would no longer be obliged to spend six months a year in France — usually in rudimentary hostels — to receive their pensions. They could be with their families in Africa as much as they wished.

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