Cannes war films delve into France’s painful colonial legacies

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The Cannes Film Festival explored the devastating human cost of war and colonisation in Philippe Faucon’s Algerian War film “Les Harkis” and the Omar Sy-starring “Father and Soldier”, whose director Mathieu Vadepied sat down for an interview with FRANCE 24.

In November 1998, just months after France’s multi-racial football team lifted its first World Cup title, another legacy of the country’s colonial history passed away quietly in a faraway village north of Dakar, in Senegal.

Abdoulaye Ndiaye, who died aged 104, was the last of the Tirailleurs, the Senegalese riflemen who fought for their colonial masters in the trenches of northern France during World War I. He died just one day before France’s then-president, Jacques Chirac, was due to decorate him with the Legion of Honour in belated recognition of his services.

The failure to acknowledge Ndiaye’s sacrifice during his lifetime has stuck with French director Mathieu Vadepied ever since, inspiring the long-gestating project that has finally come to completion at the Cannes Film Festival.

“It felt like a symbol of France’s failure to recognise the Tirailleurs and tell their story,” said the director, a day after his film opened the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar to hearty applause.

Cannes Film Festival © FRANCE24

Vadepied, who has travelled and worked in Senegal and elsewhere in Africa, said he felt a duty to exhume the history of the Tirailleurs. His film is a tribute to the young men of Senegal and other French colonies who were snatched from their homes and forced to fight in a war that meant nothing to them, for a “motherland” whose language most didn’t speak.

While the film’s original title, “Tirailleurs”, has evocative power in French, its English version highlights the director’s concern to approach war through an intimate focus on a father’s relationship with the son he is desperate to protect. “Lupin” star Omar Sy, the son of Senegalese immigrants, plays a weary village farmer who enrols in the army to watch over his son after he is forcefully conscripted by the French.

Vadepied stressed the importance of rooting his story in Senegal and keeping an intimate gaze on the film’s protagonists while giving war itself a distinctly unspectacular treatment.

“I needed to start my story in Africa, to give a flavour of the protagonists’ lives before war and how the colonial experience came to shatter their world. I wanted the beauty and musicality of the Peul language to give a specific texture to the characters,” he said.

“We know the history of the war, but not that of the Tirailleurs,” Vadepied said, highlighting cinema’s “mission to educate, to pass on stories and historical memories, while also interrogating the society we live in.” He added: “The story of France’s colonial troops needs to be recognised and told, to allow subsequent generations to identify with this history too.”

As Sy, the son of Senegalese immigrants, told the audience at the Cannes premiere, “We don’t have the same (historical) memory, but we share the same history.”

The abandonment of Algeria’s Harkis

“After this battle, you will no longer be indigenous, you will be French!” yells an officer in one of the film’s rare battle scenes, moments before the Tirailleurs leap out of the trenches and charge into muddy no-man’s land, soon to be mowed down by enemy fire. Similar empty promises were at the heart of Philippe Faucon’s “Les Harkis”, which screened in Cannes on Thursday, part of the Directors’ Fortnight running parallel with the festival.

Cannes 2022: Algerian War of Independence depicted in ‘Les Harkis’


The veteran French director, who was born to a French-Algerian pied-noir mother, has focused his latest work on the Algerian Muslims – known as Harkis – who served as auxiliaries in the French army during the country’s gruesome war of independence between 1954 and 1962.

The movie’s Cannes premiere coincides with the 60th anniversary of the end of a conflict that left open wounds on either side of the Mediterranean, and comes just months after President Emmanuel Macron asked for “forgiveness” on behalf of France for the abandonment of the Harkis.

>> Read more: Algerians and French share their stories of the Algerian War

“Join France, she will not betray you,” says an officer early in the film as reluctant recruits line up to enrol in the Harki units – some to feed their families, others out of loyalty to France or to avenge a family member killed by independence fighters. Little do they know that the government in Paris is about to negotiate a way out of the bloody conflict, leaving them behind.

A still from Philippe Faucon's "Les Harkis".
A still from Philippe Faucon’s “Les Harkis”. © Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

When the French government eventually pulled its forces out, it left a majority of the Harkis to fend for themselves, despite earlier assurances that it would look after them. Trapped in Algeria, many were massacred as the country’s new rulers took brutal revenge. Thousands of others were placed in camps in France, often with their families, in degrading and traumatising conditions.

Like Vadepied’s film, “Les Harkis” is not a conventional war film. It is less interested in the battle scenes than in the physical and emotional impact of war on its characters, and the heart-wrenching decisions they are compelled to make in the hope of preserving their livelihoods and those of their loved ones.

The movies talk about different wars, different epochs, and two countries with very different experiences of French rule. But they share a common concern for the human cost of war and colonisation, and for the need to confront troubled histories that continue to poison both France’s politics and its relations with its former colonies.

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