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IMPERIAL RECKONING

Lupin’s Omar Sy will star in a film about the Senegalese forced to fight for France in World War I

Omar Sy with Felicity Jones and Tom Hanks posing for a picture at a formal event
Reuters/Axel Schmidt
Omar Sy will bring his international gravitas to a French colonial story
  • Alexander Onukwue
By Alexander Onukwue

West Africa correspondent

Published

He has gained acclaim and scooped awards for playing Assane Diop, an ingenious French thief. For his next trick, Omar Sy is diving into an uncomfortable French story from his father’s country.

The Lupin star will play the lead in Father & Soldier, an action drama that revisits the role of African soldiers in World War I, Variety reports. Sy will play Bakary, a Senegalese man whose 17 year-old son Thierno is forced to fight for France in the war. Bakary enlists in the trenches to protect his son.

The movie is already shooting in France, per Variety, with Senegal next on the itinerary. With a $14 million budget, Sy and his collaborators could generate more popular attention to mistreated, forgotten African heroes of European wars.

Senegal was ground zero for France’s colonial infantry

Sy will portray soldiers known as Senegalese Tirailleurs, men from French colonies in Africa recruited—in some cases conscripted by the threat of land seizures—to fight for France in wars.

From Senegal, France extended the pool of eligible infantrymen to Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. France had 200,000 of these troops for World War I alone,  30,000 of whom were killed. Abdoulaye N’Diaye, the last surviving Senegalese soldier to fight in that war, died in 1998.

But the really grim story of west African soldiers fighting for France came in December 1944, months after Paris was liberated towards the end of World War II, when the French Army killed hundreds of colonial troops at a demobilization camp outside Dakar in Senegal. Their crime? Demanding to be paid their earned fair wages, which was in any case less than those of their white French counterparts.

The Thiaroye massacre, as that tragedy has been known since, was largely met with silence from the French government, but creative works have helped to remind people that it happened.

Camp de Thiaroye, a film by Senegalese author and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène (and a soldier in the French Army from 1944 to 1946), is probably the most renowned work on the subject. As if to prove its efficacy, Sembène’s film was apparently banned in France for a decade.

France has “unwavering support” for Sy’s new flick

Where Sembène’s film recast his personal experience and real-life events, Bakary and Thierno seem to be fictional characters. That said, the intention is for their story to convey the mood of those Great War soldiers in Senegal in 1917.

And unlike Sembène’s film, France seems to approve this new project.

“I’m touched that this film is being produced out of France with Senegal as a co-production country, with the support of France’s National Film Board and FOPICA (the Senegalese film board),” Sy said.

France Televisions, the state-run public broadcaster, and Canal Plus have also offered “unwavering support” according to Sy.

The film is set to be released in 2023. It could bring Sy—born in France to a Senegalese father and Mauritanian mother—closer to African audiences. But he’ll definitely be under the scrutiny of curious eyes who will expect him to carry the narrative’s history with the care it deserves. African filmmakers looking to take back control from the European gaze will be especially attentive.

It may count in Sy’s favor that the film was co-written by Olivier Demangel, screenwriter for “Atlantics” – the well-received 2019 romance drama set in Senegal. The other Father & Soldier co-writer is Mathieu Vadepied, the director of Untouchable where Sy first shone as an actor.

Apart from the artistic weight of portraying an important story, Sy has a business interest in making Father & Soldier work. It is being produced by Korokoro, his production outfit, in collaboration with French production company Unité. Gaumont, the studio behind Lupin and Untouchable, is co-producing and handling international sales for Father & Soldier.

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