With “Tirailleurs” and “Les Harkis” Cannes delves into France’s colonial past

The films “Tirailleurs” and “Les Harkis”, presented at the start of the Cannes Film Festival, deal with the fate of Africans who were drafted into the French army during the First World War and the Algerian War. Two historical films that share in exploring the complexities of war without Manichaeism.

This is one of the great themes of this 75thand edition of the Cannes Film Festival. The oh-so-sensitive subject of French colonization invites itself into the Croisette through two films, which will be shown as previews on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. “Tirailleurs” by Mathieu Vadepied with Omar Sy deals with the fate of African soldiers who were drafted into the French army during the First World War.

“Les Harkis” by Philippe Faucon tells the story of the abandonment of the Algerians who fought for France against the FLN (National Liberation Front) during the Algerian War (1954-1962). Two films that question the troubled past of colonization through intimate stories, no frills or Manicheanism.

Long term projects

“Tirailleurs” was presented at the opening of the “Un Certain Respect” section and received a prolonged ovation on Wednesday 18th May. “This film means a lot to me. We don’t have the same memory, but we have the same story,” explains Omar Sy, co-producer of the project.

During World War I, around 200,000 sub-Saharan African soldiers from the French colonies, commonly known as “Senegalese skirmishers”, were sent to the front lines along with the soldiers in mainland France. While 30,000 of them died in combat, many survivors returned wounded or crippled without ever being recognized by France.

For director Mathieu Vadepied, “Tirailleurs” is the result of a long process of reflection. An idea born in 1998 with the death of the last Senegalese shooter, Abdoulaye Ndiaye, at the age of 104. He had been forcibly recruited in 1914. “The irony of fate is that he died a day before the Legion of Honor promised by the President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac,” stresses Mathieu Vadepied.

Philippe Faucon, director of the film “Les Harkis”, has also thought about it for a long time. “The Algerian war is an urgent question for me. I was born at that time, to parents who saw it and were deeply affected by it,” emphasizes the filmmaker, who had already approached this historical chapter in his film Treachery, 2005.

His new feature film describes the journey of a group of Harkis from their recruitment into the French army to Algeria’s independence in 1962. After leaving France, several tens of thousands of them, considered traitors by the population, were murdered in Algeria. Others were repatriated to France in appalling conditions, despite President Charles de Gaulle’s promise never to abandon those who fought for France.

Individual fates in the face of war

If Philippe Faucon’s film dedicates a large part of its story to military operations, the director sees his film primarily as a human story. “It’s a story of men involved in war, of characters who come into contact with strong things but have little opportunity to express them.”

Two of his characters, Salah and Kaddour, join the French army without conviction to support their families. A choice that will make them feel ambivalent, towards France, whose support they doubt, but also towards the villagers, whom they now see as a threat. Their Colonel Pascal, too, is torn between his military hierarchy, which wants to pack up, and his troops, whom he cannot abandon.

picture from the movie
Photograph from the film “Les Harkis” by Philippe Faucon. © Cannes Film Festival

As in “Les Harkis”, the characters of “Tirailleurs” face crucial dilemmas. Bakary Diallo, the character played by Omar Sy, decided to join the French army to save his young son who was being conscripted. But the latter is torn between his father’s desire to desert and the appeal of a military career that is within his grasp.

“Rather than bring a documentary look, through fiction, through incarnation, I wanted to try to reach people who don’t know this story,” explains Mathieu Vadepied. “It was for me to place an intimate narrative in a larger, larger historical context.”

No-frills films that spark debate

In the treatment of their respective subjects, the two feature films show a sober aesthetic that stands in contrast to the large resources that are usual for the production of war films. “My goal was to create something very crafted and intimate… without fancy effects, tracking shots or drones,” states Mathieu Vadepied, who believes he can stay as close to his characters’ story as possible.

Philippe Faucon explains that his film’s form reflects an artistic choice, but also budget constraints. “We had a limited shooting time for economic reasons. We had to be concise and very selective when shooting our shots and our sequences. But choosing simplicity is also a conscious choice. We wanted to tell this story without looking for effects or forced emotions. “

Far from the sensationalism that sometimes helps glorify war, “Les Harkis” and “Tirailleurs” search for the authenticity of stories written in a painful time. Its two directors hope to stimulate debate and help change the way we look at this page of history, which is still so difficult to turn today.

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