Director takes on the Devil

New film’s depiction of Rwandan genocide is concerned with its message, not its aesthetic

Roy Depuis plays Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire in the latest film version of Dallaire’s memoir, Shake Hands With the Devil.
Roy Depuis plays Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire in the latest film version of Dallaire’s memoir, Shake Hands With the Devil.
Credit: 
Supplied

On the evening of April 6, 1994, over the rolling hills of Kigali, President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down in the city’s skies. His government scattered, his fellow Hutus were enraged and the events that followed were inhuman; the next 100 days of bloodshed were among the most tragic in modern history. In Rwanda, ethnic tension between the Tutsis—the privileged minority under colonialism—and the majority Hutus has existed since the initial Belgian occupation of the country in the early 20th century.

Using the death of their president as incentive, in 1994 the Hutus unleashed pre-planned extermination tactics, under their paramilitary “Interahamwe” organization, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The rest of the story is pure genocide: a loss of life averaged at 8,000 people per day (most of them Tutsis) and the utter failure of the international community to intervene.

If tragedies such as these need heroes—remnants of hope and humanity that help us cope with the evils of the past—then Roméo Dallaire is that hero.

It is sometimes said that great stories are meant to be repeated. If this is ever to be considered true, its defence would lie in the retelling of Dallaire’s heroic tale. “The Great General”, as one venomous Hutu warrior describes him in Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Dallaire has become a minor Canadian celebrity in the wake of the Rwandan genocide.

With at least six feature films and documentaries made in the past few years regarding Dallaire and the Rwanda story, the subject matter threatens to be exhausted.

Recently, two Canadian films have garnered much attention for their retellings of the events surrounding the Montreal-raised general in Rwanda.

In 2005, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, shot by alumun and incoming Queen’s faculty member Peter Raymont, won the documentary Audience Award at Sundance and was personally praised by the festival’s creator, Robert Redford.

In 2007, a feature film with a confusingly similar title, Shake Hands with the Devil, was released. Although both films are inspired by Dallaire’s first-hand accounts, the latter is a chillingly honest dramatization starring Roy Dupuis and directed by Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies).

The film begins in a palely lit therapist’s office, with the tormented Dallaire pained in the dark, unforgiving light.

“Do you want to continue living?” asks his therapist. He stares blankly ahead—restrained, despondent, unmoved.

So goes the solemn sentiment of the film. The struggle for individual survival trivialized amidst the horror of mass slaughter.

Spottiswoode then takes his viewer through the beautiful central African countryside, expressing an almost unscathed innocence in the land and its relationship to the people.

“Nobody told me how damn beautiful this was going to be,” echoes Dallaire’s ominously foreshadowing voice-over. The beauty of the African sunshine, wrapping gently around the lush hills of central Africa, is forgotten by the film at the instance of calamity—never returning and replaced by a dark, grainy, shaky style of filmmaking. Intimate compositions lace the drama with the shielded and still expression of Dupuis’ face telling much of the story.

The familiar plot line follows: suspicion of the Hutu extermination plan arises, Habyarimana is killed, Dallaire is refused any help by the international community as the murderous rampage escalates and chaos ensues.

It would be wrong to say this is a film that relies on expository story telling. It is at its weakest when it attempts to be historical and informative; the dramatic resonance of its dialogue and occasionally methodological script make it lag.

This is a film of images: desperate, haunting and heartbreaking images. In these compositions of gradual chaos, the viewer shares Dallaire’s perspective—a helplessly restrained view.

We watch desperately as Dallaire is refused permission to use firepower. We reach the height of anticipation and fear when Dallaire silently walks across a roadblock under the aim of countless militant guns. Our hearts break as Dallaire struggles to count the burnt and tortured bodies of his men, when he personally clears away the bodies of children that litter the blood soaked streets and when he habitually begins cutting himself to cope.

Dallaire is truly alone. His colleagues are either recalled, ill or suicidal. Dupuis bears a shocking resemblance to Dallaire as he stares blankly and helplessly from the balcony of his compound. The performance is silent but profound. It’s the trace of melancholy in Dupuis’ perpetually shielded expression that paints the slow deterioration of Dallaire’s mental state.

If there is one image that can convey the emotional weight of this production, it’s the picture of a young girl, among her dead friends, family and countrymen, slipping in slow motion on the puddles of blood that surround her as she walks to her death.

This is genocide, frame by frame—an atrocity in slow motion. It is not a film concerned with its own aesthetic. Rather, it’s concerned with its message: the retelling of a crime that can never, and will never (if the film has its way) be forgotten. A story of scarring images, this is the contrast of humanity at its best and most vile.

In every aspect, this is an important film. It is by no means ground-breaking cinematic work, yet it is an honest portrait of human evil with the intention of creating a remembrance of Rwanda—a remembrance that will, hopefully, create awareness and activism for the future.

To put it in the words of Dallaire, in response to his therapist’s question: “Nobody can forget Rwanda now. You need to keep me alive. That’s an order.”

Shake Hands With the Devil is playing at the Screening Room at 7 p.m. and 9:25 p.m. nightly until Thursday.

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