PARIS — A handful of Allied troops stare at the barrels of advancing Nazi tanks, hurling grenades that bounce harmlessly off the vehicles’ armored skin. The Germans aim squarely at the Allied hideout and fire.
These soldiers, giving their lives to defend a deserted French village, are neither French nor British, American nor Canadian. They are African — and the subject of a new French movie.
“Les Enfants du Pays” (“Hometown Boys”) is the story of the so-called Senegalese Infantrymen, soldiers from France’s former colonies in Africa who fought — often on the front lines — in Europe’s wars.
Though director Pierre Javaux calls the film a fable, he says he tried to stay as close to historical fact as possible.
“The characters are fictional, but, sadly, their situation was anything but,” Javaux told The Associated Press.
“As the movie shows, we French routinely assigned the colonial infantrymen the most difficult and deadly missions,” he said. “Basically, these guys were cannon fodder.”
Formed in the 19th century to bolster France’s dwindling ranks, colonial infantrymen fought in both world wars. An estimated 300,000 soldiers from French colonies in North and West Africa and Indochina fought in WWII, according to historian Benjamin Stora, author of a more than a dozen books on France’s colonial experience.
In “Hometown Boys,” a ragtag battalion of infantrymen on their way to the front gets lost and ends up in a bucolic French village, deserted except for a grandfather and his two grandkids.
Although only one of the soldiers speaks French, the infantrymen quickly bond with their hosts.
When the Nazi tanks roll in, an officer orders the African soldiers to hold their position. They know obedience means certain death, but they hold firm, giving their lives for an abandoned village a continent away from their homes.
Looking for acknowledgement
“Hometown Boys” debuted not in a chic Paris movie hall, but in a village in Benin. Villagers of all ages crowded into a dusty square to watch the movie projected onto a sheet. The film is touring villages throughout West Africa, where France’s treatment of the infantrymen continues to be a touchy subject.
After its African colonies gained their independence during the 1960s, France froze infantrymen’s pensions. Surviving Senegalese vets’ pensions are just half of their French counterparts. French authorities say the disparity reflects the difference in the cost of living; soldiers insist it is unjust — and racist.
Javaux has also taken “Hometown Boys” to the depressed suburbs that ring Paris, where unemployed youth — many second- and third-generation Arab and African immigrants — staged weeks of riots last year.
He said the movie particularly resonated with suburban teenagers, who complain that France has yet to acknowledge the role of African troops in the country’s liberation.
“There’s a feeling of humiliation and resentment that grows from one generation to the next,” said Javaux, adding that he saw the movie as a small step toward reconciliation.
Moviegoer Nadhera Beletreche agreed.
“It’s a courageous film because it shows a part of our history we are not taught in school,” said Beletreche, a 23-year-old graduate student whose grandparents came to France from Algeria.
“Hometown Boys” is part of growing re-examining France’s colonial past. In 2004 — 59 years after V-E Day — France decorated 50 African veterans with it highest award, the Legion of Honor. Shortly after, Senegal held its first ceremony honoring surviving infantrymen — now in their 80s and 90s.
Though French critics have trashed “Hometown Boys,” calling it sappy and unoriginal, moviegoers have responded positively.
After a recent screening, Senegalese researcher Aladgi Diop called the movie “very good and very symbolic.”
“It’s an attempt to rescue a bit of lost history,” he said. “We welcome that — even if it comes too late for many of our soldiers.”
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