French star Omar Sy returns to Senegalese roots for WWI movie

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One of France’s best-loved stars, Omar Sy, has returned to his Senegalese roots for a movie about colonial troops who fought for France in the World War I trenches.

Sy — best-known to an international audience for the Netflix thriller series “Lupin” — was in Dakar on Tuesday for the glitzy premiere of the much-awaited “Tirailleurs.”

The story is about a young man in Senegal named Thierno who is press-ganged into the French army, prompting his father to enlist voluntarily to keep an eye on him. Both are sent to the butchery of the Western Front.

More than 200,000 Africans served in the French armed forces during the first world war.

Many fought as “tirailleurs,” or front-line infantry, where losses were often devastating yet remain overlooked in history books and official records.

French-born Sy, who in the film speaks in his mother tongue of Fula, said he was swept away by the film’s French-Senegalese currents.

“This is totally my story. It’s totally my identity,” he told AFP.

Sy said he had “many emotions” about the film, to which he had invited friends, relatives and Senegalese members of the crew for the premiere.

“It’s about being able to acknowledge and remind ourselves of what these men have contributed,” Sy told AFP. “It’s something that our generation needs.”

Senegalese music stars Youssou N’Dour and Ismael Lo were among local celebrities who attended.

“Tirailleurs”’ director is Mathieu Vadepied, who teamed up with Sy in 2011 to make “The Intouchables,” an acclaimed comedy drama about a wealthy but haughty quadriplegic and his ebullient black helper from the gritty Paris suburbs.

Vadepied said the film and choice of Dakar for the launch were a tribute to “all these soldiers who took part in these wars.”

“The history between France and Senegal and the other countries in Africa is now a distant but shared history. We are intertwined.”

“Tirailleurs,” which had its festival premiere in May in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, goes on commercial release in France and Senegal in early January. The English version is entitled “Father & Soldier.”

Among the public who watched the premiere, many said the film turned a vital spotlight on a painful and often forgotten colonial episode.

“We need (a film like this) to open minds and to serve the duty of remembrance. Not all of us are going to read a 500-page book,” said Salome Bar, a 21-year-old French-Senegalese student.

“There is still a taboo,” she said. “You can’t be healed of that wound so easily.”

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