In theaters since Wednesday, “Tirailleurs” is a historical drama by Mathieu Vadepied which pays tribute to the skirmishers of the First World War.
Skirmishers by Mathieu Vadepied
With Omar Sy, Alassane Diong, Jonas Bloquet…
What is it about ? 1917. Bakary Diallo enlists in the French army to join Thierno, his 17-year-old son, who has been forcibly recruited. Sent to the front, father and son will have to face the war together. Galvanized by the ardor of his officer who wants to lead him to the heart of the battle, Thierno will free himself and learn to become a man, while Bakary will do everything to save him from the fighting and bring him back safe and sound.
The involvement of Omar Sy
Director Mathieu Vadepied and Omar Sy met on the set of Intouchables in 2011, where Vadepied was director of photography. Since then, the actor has continued to accompany Tirailleurs throughout its ten years of development.
Having become too old to play the main role, he considered withdrawing from the project but wanted to continue supporting the film by co-producing it. Finally, he plays the hero’s father, while participating in the production: “I want to show that my involvement goes beyond being on the bill. It’s an involvement that goes beyond that of the actor. I believe a lot in this story, it’s important for me that it exists, and I want to help to make it known as well as possible. I thought that just being an actor in it was not enough. Performing and co-producing are two forms of support.”
This commitment was felt in his collaboration with the director, as the latter says: “With Omar Sy, it was extremely powerful, with some friction between us even though we have known each other for a long time. We learned to listen to each different in the other. I invited him to a form of minimalism and we advanced step by step, between the Fulani language that I do not speak, and the feelings he had. We found the character of Bakary in this rich and unprecedented exchange for both of us I believe.”
Who are the skirmishers?
The first battalion of skirmishers was created by imperial decree in July 1857. This body of soldiers was formed within the French colonial Empire and made up of African soldiers, from the Maghreb to sub-Saharan Africa. They participated in moments of glory – the defense of Reims in 1918 or the battle of Bir Hakeim in 1940 – as well as in tragedies such as the terrible massacres committed by the Wehrmacht against them during the campaign in France.
As for the so-called “Senegalese” skirmishers (from Senegal but also from all over Africa), they went to the front, alongside the hairy men from mainland France. They were nearly 200,000 to fight, 30,000 died on the battlefields of the Great War, many returned wounded or disabled. Nearly 150,000 were mobilized during the Second World War (figures vary according to sources). This military body was disbanded in 1960.
The history of the skirmishers is still little known and often forgotten in school textbooks.
The idea for the film was born in 1998 with the death of the last Senegalese tirailleur (Abdoulaye Ndiaye, at the age of 104, he had been forcibly recruited in 1914). He died the day before he was to receive the Legion of Honor promised by the President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac.
Mathieu Vadepied remembers: “I don’t know why, I tell myself that if it is in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the remains of a colonial army skirmisher from one of these African countries then colonized by the France. It started like that. Then I did some research, even though at the time, I didn’t think that I would one day have the opportunity to make such a film. It stayed in my head and it worked its way.”
The project of a lifetime
The director defines Tirailleurs as “the project of a lifetime”. Since childhood, he has had a link with the African continent. His grandfather – to whom the film is dedicated – was mayor of Évron, a small farming town in Mayenne, twinned with Lakota, in Ivory Coast. “As a child, I often saw Ivorian delegations come to Evron for festive and cultural events.
Thanks to his grandfather, mayor and senator, and his father, who became a deputy for a constituency in the Oise, Mathieu Vadepied developed a political conscience concerning memorial issues. He wanted to draw up “an inventory of French society in its diversity, its richness, its strength by assuming this past and, above all, with the vital need to recognize it.”
Tirailleurs was partly shot in Fulani, a language spoken in some twenty states, in West Africa and the Sahel as well as in Central Africa. An assumed choice by the director who allows the authenticity of the story to be preserved, even if it could frighten the co-producers and the television channels: “I found it fascinating to make a very immersive film, in the perception of the characters, up to of man, not overhanging historically – it’s not a reconstruction. I wanted a staging and a direction of actors who immerse us in a form of present. A present of the time.”
It was the same for Omar Sy: “there was no question of playing a Frenchman with an accent, I did not see myself doing that. I thought it was bad for the film. I find that with what we tell on the historical, emotional level, you have to be demanding. So the choice to play in the Fulani language, the language that I speak, was decisive.”