Omar Sy: “Let’s be proud of what brings us together”

What is the subject of Tirailleurs, a film in which you play the character of Bakary?

It is the story of a Senegalese father who, to protect his son Thierno, forcibly recruited into the French army in 1917, enlists in turn. Sent to the front, the two men face the war together. Beyond the historical facts, the film evokes a magnificent relationship between a son (played by Alassane Diong, editor’s note) and his father.

You are involved in this film as an actor and co-producer. Why such a commitment?

I absolutely wanted this project, which had been in the making for ten years, to succeed. The first time we mentioned it with Mathieu Vadepied, the director, was on the set of Intouchables, a film on which Mathieu was chief operator.

Why was this project so important to you?

There are very few direct accounts of these First World War fighters. The so-called “Senegalese” skirmishers – they came from Senegal but also from other African countries – are 200,000 to be mounted at the front, alongside the hairy people of the metropolis. And 30,000 of them died on the battlefields. Our desire is to tell their story, little known to the general public.

Why do we know her so badly?

I am not a historian, but perhaps there is an unconscious desire to forget certain painful subjects. A bit like family secrets that we avoid discussing… But now is the time to tell the story of these men who took part in the history of France.

Tirailleurs is very far from being a divisive film that would look for culprits and victims…

This film exists so that we can create a common history without giving rise to claims of intention or victimhood postures. We don’t all have the same memory, but we share the same story.

Do you take a different look at France since you live in the United States?

I didn’t take any particular distance from French history. It’s mine forever. I would just like to help preserve our ability to socialize in France. Even if this idea is much criticized – accused of utopia by some, of naivety by others – I believe in it deeply. I always look at social issues through this prism; living together is the only solution

What resistance do you encounter?

I have the impression that today, each citizen clings to his own version of history, and that any new look at the past represents a danger. But it is actually quite the opposite: the multiplicity of visions enriches us. History is transmitted through the power of stories. Tirailleurs is a mainstream film in the noble sense of the term, intended for all generations and all walks of life. Own our story! Let’s be proud of what constitutes us from generation to generation and what can, beyond our origins, bring us together!

We don’t all have the same memory, but we share the same story.

What role does art play in this perspective?

By arousing emotion, cinema has the ability to touch people’s hearts. This film is an act of transmission. It is through intimate stories that the complexity of lived experiences, in the horror of war, appears. History is not transmitted only through school textbooks. It also goes through the cinema, the live show, the novel or the comic strip…

Your character speaks in the Fulani language, present in West Africa. Why such a strong choice?

Very far from Senegal, Bakary Diallo comes to fight for a country of which he knows neither the language nor the codes. Hearing him express himself in Fulani allows the viewer to become aware of it.

Did this role call for something in you that you had never shown on screen?

By expressing myself in my mother tongue, what I carry within me of the Fulani tradition has awakened… Discreet and modest, the character of Bakary cultivates a very deep inner life. It is the image of this tradition which was transmitted to me by my parents. A part of me is exposed in this role. I too am a very modest person, even if I don’t look like it.

This fiction tells the relationship between a father and his son…

Thierno, 17, has a heroic outlook on life and feels invincible. He is built with, and against, his father Bakary… To become a man, he must free himself from paternal authority. The war exacerbates this always somewhat chaotic moment. Their relationship is transformed at a time when, cut off from his bearings, the father loses his authority.

You are the father of a large family, founded twenty-five years ago with your wife Hélène. Did this experience inform your interpretation?

Of course, this story resonates with me. As the father of several children, some of whom are young adults, I know that this desire for transformation always comes as a shock to parents. When the teenager becomes an adult, it takes a little time to accept it and find ways to renew the relationship.

This father is ready to sacrifice his life for his son…

This is what you realize when you hold your child in your arms for the first time: you are ready to do anything to protect this little being. This film evokes the strength of family ties. It also shows the complexity and beauty of the relationship between parents and children, beyond crises.

Bakary is also a Muslim man of faith. Does it give him strength?

A believer, he will draw on his spiritual resources to face the ordeal of war. Bakary has an unconditional respect for life, in all its forms. The singular relationship to mineral, plant, animal and human life, specific to the Fulani people, is reflected through his character. For this man, killing is not a simple act. However, like the other fighters, he will end up agreeing to go to war to move towards a future of peace.

Are you a believer?

Yes, I am a practicing Muslim. Spirituality is an infinite resource for me. My faith helps me live and move forward in life. It’s my way of trying to become a better man every day.

“Spirituality is an infinite resource. My faith helps me move forward.”

Do you transmit this spirituality to your children?

Spirituality can only unfold in absolute freedom. My kids watch me practice and that’s all I care about. Religion can of course be transmitted through rituals, places or encounters which are like doors to access the spiritual dimension. But faith is unique to every human being. We perceive it – or not – in ourselves.

What do you find beautiful in your own family?

I was, and still am, very happy when I am with my parents. Sometimes I even allow myself to become a somewhat capricious child with them, especially when my mother is around (Smile). For me, the family is a shelter, even if I know that, for others, it is not the case. I am lucky and very grateful to have had these parents.

What did they teach you?

They simply loved me, beyond misunderstandings and my peculiarities. In a country where they did not have all the codes when they arrived, they wanted to learn to read and write French. While we, their children, happily invent our own language in Trappes: a mixture of verlan and slang. I know today that all these upheavals were not easy for them. Finally, they never stopped loving me and that gave me wings!

You are among the favorite personalities of the French, and the films in which you play regularly reach the firmament of the box offices. Do you ever think of yourself as a screen god?

Oh no, never! Far from there! Since there is only one God and he is up there. (Laughs) Seriously, you can’t do this job if you think you’re a superman. Being an actor means knowing how to connect with a character through his humanity. This humanity, I will seek it in myself, in my guts, each time I interpret a role. How would I ply my trade if I lost this?

His bio

January 20, 1978. Born in Trappes (Yvelines).

1996. Presenter on Radio Nova.

2005-2012. Creator and presenter of after-sales service for programs, with Fred Testot, on Canal+.

2006. Our happy days.

2007. Marriage to Hélène Lair, the mother of his five children.

2012. César for best actor for Intouchables. 2016 Designated “favorite personality of the French” (Ifop poll for the JDD).

2021. Season 1 of Lupine, on Netflix

Omar Sy: “Let’s be proud of what brings us together”