Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Starring: Roy Dupuis
Canadians love Romeo Dallaire. In the space of about five years, we’ve seen Shake Hands With The Devil the book, the documentary, and now the feature film. It makes me wonder if maybe Dallaire ought to throw his hat into the ring for leadership of the Liberal party, but I suppose that’s another subject entirely. Roger Spottiswoode’s film, adapted from Dallaire’s book, is angry and intense, exploring both the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the psychological effects of bearing witness.
The story begins in 1993, when the two sides of the conflict have agreed to a cease fire and it seems as if an extended period of peace is within reach. The U.N. peacekeepers led by General Dallaire (Roy Dupuis) are cautiously optimistic that a lasting agreement can be made, but it soon becomes apparent that a plot is underway to restart hostilities. The U.N. soldiers have several opportunities to prevent the situation from exploding but each time are given orders not to interfere, to simply stand by as the situation spirals desperately out of control and the slaughter of Tutsis and Hutu moderates begins across the country.
The film has two primary concerns. The first is to demonstrate how, in the name of diplomacy and self-interest, the U.N. left its soldiers impotent in the face of crisis. “If it’s genocide,” Dallaire explains, “they have to do something.” If, however, you call it something else – or ignore it completely – then you have no obligation to intervene. Troops are removed, supplies are too late in arriving, bodies litter the road, all while the U.N. soldiers make do with what little they have to work with and struggle to bring attention to the crisis. The second of the film’s concerns is with the effect that having to stand back and watch people being systematically murdered has on the soldiers. Dallaire himself is represented as being literally haunted by what he sees and by film’s end he recognizes that he’s no longer in any shape to be a part of this particular mission.
The performance by Roy Dupuis is extraordinary. There are so many instances when he could have descended into scenery chewing, but his performance is always restrained and controlled, hinting at Dallaire’s demons rather than hammering them out of the screen and at the audience. As for the film itself, it’s wonderfully assembled. The history of the conflict is complex but the film finds a way to provide a cursory overview of the build-up to the genocide without allowing the story to be burdened with being a mere history lesson. It’s a very well-balanced film, guided with a firm and able hand.
The U.N. doesn’t come out looking particularly good here but it isn’t the sole target of the film’s anger. The focus is actually less on laying blame – there’s far too much to go around to place it squarely on anyone’s shoulders – than on pointing out that hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to do with the politics of the situation were none the less punished for it. When Dallaire tries to arrange the transport of refugees behind RPF lines, he’s informed that the forces are too busy trying to save the country to concern themselves with refugees. “What is your country?” Dallaire asks, “these hills, those trees, that lake over there?” The people got lost along the way, transformed into symbols and statistics. Shake Hands With The Devil is a brutal film not because the violence it depicts is graphic (it’s pretty tame in that respect) but because the emotional and psychological chords that it strikes are so sensitive. It’s a searing indictment not of any one army or of the U.N. but of humanity in general and the preference for memorializing tragedy instead of preventing it.