- Aug 24, 2002
The star of a new film which centres on a group of Senegalese soldiers defending a family from the German army in World War II has said that he hopes the film can help "correct" French history to highlight the role African people played in the conflict. Les Enfants Du Pays tells the story of an elderly man and his two grandchildren, who are the only three people left in a village in the Ardennes as the Germans prepare to invade France in 1940. A group of soldiers from Senegal - at the time a French colony - are sent to protect them.
Acclaimed actor William Nadylam - who plays the leader of the soldiers, known as the Tirailleurs Senegalais - told BBC World Service's On Screen programme that he felt France does not currently give enough credit to the role Africans played.
"The problem is that each black actor has to carry that burden of being a little bit of a historian," he said.
"Of course, I knew the story - it is part of my own personal story, people in my family fought in these wars, and we still live with the fact that French history doesn't mention that enough.
"It doesn't recognise us - the atrocities that were committed, and the sacrifices of these people."
When the Senegalese unit is posted with the family, the two children and their grandfather - played by Michel Serrault - have never seen black people before.
In World War II France, like many other European countries, brought men from its African colonies to be trained to become soldiers.
They were promised money and French citizenship - but in many cases, Nadylam said, this did not happen.
"The research we did allowed us to discover more sad, gripping stories - and once again, to realise how much these stories needed to be told, and unveiled to the public," he added.
"France isn't very good at the oxygen of history - we're very good at telling other people how bad they were, but there's still a lot of work to be done on ourselves."
Nadylam, who is currently himself writing a play in which one character is a Tirailleur Senegalais, said that the message of the film is to teach tolerance, explaining that at the beginning, the soldiers and the family are "strangers" - but realise that they "laugh at the same things, we are scared of the same things."
"We are more like each other than we think," he added.
The actor added that he has been astounded by the "very positive" reaction the film has received.
He credited much of this to independent producer-director Pierre Javaux, who also wrote the screenplay.
"Javaux wanted to bring the story to people without trying to shock them at any price," Nadylam said.
"Rather than telling a story of horrible things, and make people feel guilty or pitiful, he wanted to create an empathy... when we screened the movie, people shed tears. I didn't expect that.
"Of course the movie isn't a commercial movie, which would sell like the last Batman or James Bond - but people are really touched.
"It's a movie that will stay in people's minds. I think people will buy it on DVDs. People will go and see it with families, with children.
"The movie isn't aggressive, because it is isn't vindictive. Towards the end, people really feel for these people who came to fight for this country, and they feel that, yes, the black man, who is working, holding the door, driving the cab, is also French and deserves to be here."