Judge Joel Pearce refuses to wear red hats.
A rallying cry for the African Nationalism movement.
As often happens with these kind of foreign releases, Camp de Thiaroye has received a wide range of comparisons. On the case alone, the film is likened to The Battle of Algiers, the epics of David Lean, and Sergei Eisenstein. While it never manages to live up to these bold accolades, it does prove to be a unique perspective on the slow death of colonialism.
Facts of the Case
At the tail end of World War II, a regiment of French Colonial troops from all over Africa arrives in Senegal, where they are placed into a temporary camp at Thiaroye. What the soldiers aren't told is that the camp is really designed to maintain the status quo for the black soldiers, ensuring that the confidence they have gained on the battlefield won't turn into rebellion back at home. When the top brass in the French military refuses to pay the soldiers properly for their work, it sets up a chain of events that can only lead to horrible tragedy.
I wanted to mention the comparisons between Camp de Thiaroye and the epics of David Lean because of how different they really are. I'm sure the comparison came because of Lawrence of Arabia, because of its vast desert views and the African World War era story. David Lean, though, was a true master of pacing, spinning vast yarns that were comfortable with their long running times. Camp de Thiaroye, on the other hand, feels almost an hour longer than it needs to be. Its realist style doesn't gel with the content—these landscapes are plain and beige, and the conversations between characters last for an eternity, lacking the sharpness needed for a film this long.
The comparisons to Battle of Algiers don't stick, either. That film is driven by its conflict, and as lean as any film has ever been. Not a moment is wasted, and every shot pushes directly towards is concluding conflict. I wouldn't call Camp de Thiaroye sprawling, but it really does meander at times. Too many of the conversations are repetitive. The actors are too aware of the camera's presence. Too many of the conversations are blunt and obvious, pointing out the themes when they should simply be allowed to unfold.
Of course, this more reflects the film's connections to the Russian cinematic tradition than it does a weakness in Ousmane Sembene's technique. There's no question that this is a film created with skill and care. The bleakness of the backdrops, the slow pacing, the repeated conversation topics—it's all part of the unique vision of the colonial struggle. It makes the statement well, too, and hasn't lost any of its emotional power since its initial release. The treatment of these men is consistently horrifying, and never strains credibility. The racism built into the political structure itself is painful to watch, though it has been rendered brilliantly onto the screen. The French citizens are cruel without becoming caricatures of evil, and the colonials never become simply oppressed stereotypes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the disc doesn't look so great. This film probably looked quite good when it was first printed, but this digital transfer just looks flat and boring. The color palette is quite limited, consisting of mostly beige and red, which bleeds a bit more than I've seen from a DVD transfer for quite a while. Most of the outdoor scenes look washed out, and a lot of shadow detail gets lost. The audio comes in the form of a stereo track that sounds acceptable, but tends a bit harsh when it comes to music and dialogue. It's hard to tell how much can be blamed on the transfer and how much is simply the age and quality of the print. Still, it's pretty clear that Camp de Thiaroye went through a bare minimum of remastering. The only extra on the disc is an interview with Danny Glover, who gives plenty of context for understanding where the film comes from.
Although it doesn't play as smoothly as the epic war films we're used to seeing, the emotional power of Camp de Thiaroye is impossible to deny. We've seen plenty of films about Africa and the struggle against colonial nations, but too few of them were written, produced, or directed by people from Africa. I would recommend this to any serious foreign film buffs, though a rental might be better than a purchase, given the overall quality of the release. Most others will, admittedly, find this far too long-winded to sit through.
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Studio: New Yorker Films
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