A good man in hell
A UK region 2 DVD review of SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: THE PERSONAL JOURNEY
OF ROMÉO DALLAIRE
by Camus
 
"Who the hell cared about Rwanda?"
Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire
"It's the U.N."
A Rwanda based U.N. worker giving an
excuse for bureaucratic incompetence.

 

Ten years ago, while the world's media centred on the fate of a single black man in California, no one heard – or indeed wanted to hear – the hundreds of thousands of screams coming from the middle of Africa... What price human life?

In Rwanda, central Africa, in 1994, while the world was hypnotically distracted by the O.J. Simpson circus (sorry, trial), an African government-backed militia and extremist factions exterminated 800,000 human beings in one of the worst atrocities of the late 20th century. Over a period of three months, the Hutu soldiers and citizens of Rwanda shot and mostly hacked to death their Tutsi brethren and Hutu moderates in one of the most appalling acts of mass murder the world has ever witnessed (or in this case, one which the world had pointedly avoided witnessing). I have outlined the historical, political and sociological aspects of the massacre in my review for Hotel Rwanda and won't dwell on them in this piece except perhaps to underline one historical facet of this awful event.

White colonials (in this case Belgian) essentially divided the population of Rwanda according to a series of physical attributes that were measured with instruments that seem to have been left over from Hitler's eugenic programme. In the fifties, a nation was divided by bad science employed by an arrogant, self-appointed white supremacy and kick-started an already tribal based culture on the road to genocide. I mentioned in Hotel Rwanda that it was not 'our fault' but historically it seems I was mistaken. It feels simply wrong to hear these native Africans speaking in perfect, one assumes, Belgian French. Their colonial chains had become, over successive generations, their unnaturally selected method of verbal communication.

Hotel Rwanda is a dramatic reconstruction of one hotelier's brave attempts to save as many lives as possible during the terrible carnage. Its perfect DVD companion, Shake Hands With The Devil, is a character study, an unflinching look at a man who played a central role in attempting to arrest the unfolding atrocities (in Hotel Rwanda, it's Nick Nolte's character who plays an interpretation of Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire). Dallaire cried out for help and the world simply ignored him. He now lives with the terrible burden of guilt (he's a staunch Roman Catholic which cannot ease that particular burden) believing that if he had done his job differently, lives would have been saved. The overwhelming feeling after seeing the movie is that Dallaire is the only one with this horrifying delusion, one which led him to a park bench in Canada, having numbed the grief with a great deal of alcohol culminating in several post-traumatic stress syndrome driven suicide attempts. It is this documentary's triumph that Dallaire's story is presented with passion and heartbreaking depth. Not for nothing did Robert Redford say that Shake Hands With The Devil was a film his Sundance festival was created for. Bravo Bob.

Imagine, if you will, the United Nations. Yes, that emasculated organisation that refused to give Bush and Blair an easy politically sanctioned way out while they plotted to invade Iraq. Its principal function (logically speaking) is to monitor the world and assist in situations that require peace-keeping forces. Rwanda was a powder keg and the fuse had been lit. Dallaire's mission was to put the fuse out. He was given a handkerchief and ordered to cover a football field. To the man's credit, he really tried. But the world didn't want to help. The world didn't want to know. Who cared about Africa? Dallaire was to enforce the peace in a situation that was clearly going to blow up in his face. He had so little support from the United Nations that one wonders why he was sent out there in the first place. Just because he spoke French? If it was a token gesture then it was lost on a beautiful country ripped apart by civil war and one about to be hacked apart splattering the history books with the blood of innocents.

The quintessential core of this fine documentary is the character of Roméo Dallaire. We are invited to see this appalling tragedy through his eyes and his eyes alone. He had written a book because he did not want something like this to ever happen again (who would?) and to exorcise a few particularly horrific personal demons. He wanted the world to know that international apathy costs more than political leverage. Be warned. The snatched footage of machete murder and the butchered bodies floating garishly in the rivers of Rwanda take a strong stomach to handle. I doubt if the film-makers wavered for a second in the decision to include this footage (the director's commentary tells us otherwise but these images are vital in grasping the leaf of the blood soaked rainforest). You really do have to see it front and centre because it is – by its scale – almost impossible to believe.

The director Peter Raymont (or editor, Michèle Hozer – impossible to know whose creative decisions prevailed) has peppered the film with visuals that act as tug boats to the story. Sometimes they are a little too contrived (nodding to and playfully linking to Dallaire's own voiceover) and make you think of the film-makers' choices rather than their subject; "the fog of war..." line on the soundtrack cutting to a real ground fog in the Rwandan archive footage. This is a small gripe as I have been as guilty and more as a director and editor myself. Sometimes there is simply not enough footage and you have to get creative. The film follows Dallaire back to Rwanda with his wife (cheaper than his psychiatrist as the director's commentary tells us) ten years after the genocide reliving his story as he revisits significant locations and meets significant people, survivors of a bloodbath.

The film opens and closes with Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings on the soundtrack. Those of you who either know (a) your music or (b) your Vietnam movies will recognise this sublimely haunting track as Oliver Stone's choix de jour for Platoon. I'm not suggesting that the music has been overused (well, yes, I am) but the justification is that it was played as Dallaire wrote his book and one can't argue with that – well, one can but it's such an amazingly haunting piece that it's justified here in spades despite its now apparent ubiquity. Without using a lot of poor quality library material, director Peter Raymont had to trust his story and stay focussed on Dallaire and the film is stronger for that decision. Why?

Because Dallaire is the perfect soldier. I say this with no personal first hand knowledge of the man or his methods. It's simply because if Dallaire is half the man as presented in this documentary, then you would want him commanding you in war. He never forgets or sidelines his humanity – his best asset. He is visibly moved by situations and people. He is stunned that the political world, specifically the U.N., can casually dismiss Africans as sub-human (the subtext in all of his contact with them). President Clinton, after the event, apologised for not knowing what would happen and interview subject U.N. Envoy Stephen Lewis airily dismisses this as the lie he believed it to be. In a tense and fraught situation (Dallaire's HQ is being attacked), the General plays music, an absurd pro U.N. rock anthem, which makes all of his soldiers smile despite themselves and their awful predicament. His is a leadership with a capital 'L'.

In trying to find ways to express himself, Dallaire falls back on religious terminology (he is a religious man after all), a convenient and unfortunately straitjacketed way of processing his experience. Dallaire is staunchly moral and in his job (enforcing his masters' and his own moral code on to others) he has to believe what he is doing is in all ways 'right'. One cannot argue with the idea of 'peace keepers'. To invoke 'evil' and 'the devil' as a way to understand what happened in Rwanda is a little too narrow for me. As critic Geoff Pevere said on the second commentary, these terms provide us with a way to understand the inconceivable. But understanding is the booby prize. How can anyone understand the will of half a nation to cut down the other half in a hundred days?

In a scene when Dallaire is hauled up before a Belgian M.P. and made accountable for the deaths of Belgian soldiers, the west's complicit act of deliberate obfuscation becomes the most morally unworthy act of the movie (in a genocide this is saying something). It brought to mind Sigourney Weaver's observations in Aliens when confronted with a political team leader, Burke (played deliciously by Paul Reiser). "You know Burke, I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage!" The Belgian was playing to the crowd, gaining political points while a good man is smeared. They have a face to face but by then – to the world's media – it's too late. Accuse a man of 'x' and the 'x' sticks regardless of his innocence. But then I am only seeing this film's point of view. See how difficult the truth is to mine? But we have the festering bodies as evidence, the horror that turned man against neighbour. A sane, humanitarian man would have stopped at nothing to prevent such a tragedy.

Nothing was all Dallaire got in return for being a decent man in a morass of indecency – both African and Western.

sound and vision

Originated on 16x9 DV and various format sources of library material, the film looks as good as can be expected and to the casual viewer there is no remarkable downside to the 1.75:1 visuals despite their obvious lack of quality (in our post modern days, these images would look 'wrong' if they were perfect in quality). The editor has chosen to add a slow motion strobe on the actuality that makes things clear when mixing Dallaire's re-visit and 1994's 'memories' via news bulletins.

The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack really uses the surround element and the sub woofer gets a few moments, mostly musical and one utterly horrific. It is very clear that a great deal of time has been taken in the mix. It is always clear – Dallaire is a very good speaker and overall this aspect of the production is particularly noteworthy.

extra features

Commentary by Director Peter Raymont
Commentary by Toronto Star Critic, Geoff Prevere

There are two commentaries and I have never encountered two for one movie that were more polarized in style. The first is by director Peter Raymont. His is laconic, respectful and one must say, somewhat sparse. The second, by Toronto Star critic, Geoff Pevere, offers us practically no pauses for breath – it's extraordinary, almost as if he was told that for every pause, he would receive an electric shock. This relentless stream of comment is about as satisfying as the other more laid back one mostly because you tend to zone out at certain times because of their styles. With too many words, you step back and I had a similar reaction to the commentary of too few words. This isn't to say both are not enlightening but both do cover ground the film has already covered with more aplomb.

To be fair, there are deliberate pauses in Pevere's commentary – over the still living victims of the genocides near death and pathetic in the true sense of the word and Dallaire's take on the 'drunken' nature of genocidal violence but to his credit, Pevere did describe his commentary as "babbling"! Both reveal more about the men performing them than about the film itself – that is not to be taken as a criticism. Commentaries are points of views. Both men have such respect for the film (based on the subject and effectiveness of the storytelling of course) that in some way, they tiptoe carefully as if a pensive Dallaire is in the room with them. But Pevere does make a very good point, that Dallaire's non-ironic ideals were so horribly ignored, perverted and exterminated in Rwanda and that's what affects him deeply (aside from the heavy cloak of guilt at being unable to save lives).

Interview with Director Peter Raymont (4x3, 7:43)
This touches on Raymont's relationship with his subject and it's no surprise that Dallaire was treated very well by the crew and he rewards them with a presence that has integrity running out of every craggy pore. There isn't a moment in the film where you think he's playing to the camera.

Excerpt Reading by Lt-General Roméo Dallaire (4x3, 5:41)
All dressed up, medals displayed, this is Dallaire's video address to the tenth anniversary memorials held in Kigali in 2004. He reads two extracts from his book and both are quite startling. He recalls meeting with the Interhamway, the Hutu extremists who used mass media to kick start the atrocities. There was still blood on one of their representative's cuffs as they shook hands. Dallaire mentioned he had emptied his gun before the meeting just in case he was moved to shoot them all.

They admitted that they were the perpetrators in a line that sickens and repels. Out of respect of the U.N. and the character of Dallaire, they agreed "not to massacre near U.N. protected sites...", a practical admission of guilt. It's a chilling memory. His second extract is more of a coda summed up with the words that the 21st "must become the century of humanity"... No luck so far.

Photo Gallery
Chief Photographer Peter Bregg took pictures of Dallaire's return to Rwanda and offers commentary on all 31 stills, some family stories, some pertaining to Dallaire. An extraordinary moment happens in his commentary over the schoolbook that lays in a church were thousands were shot and hacked to death and the bodies left to rot as a memorial to their suffering. The recollection catches Bregg unawares and the emotion comes through just for an instant. It's startlingly moving.

summary

This is an important work for all sorts of reasons but aside from alerting us to the horror we can inflict on one another, it is also a character study of a man of conscience, goodness and integrity. The fact he was a general in the U.N. is heartening. Someone in power somewhere saw fit to give this man a command. This is a good thing. They didn't see fit to give him what he needed to do his job. In terms of lives lost, this was a catastrophic thing. Shake Hands With The Devil is a solid document of a singular atrocity. I just hope that we can learn from its message.

Shake Hands With the Devil: The Personal Journey of Roméo Dallaire

Canada 2004
90 mins
director
Peter Raymont

DVD details
region 2
video
1.75:1 anamophic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English / French
subtitles
English
extras
Commentary by directer Peter Raymont
Commentary by Toronto Star critic Geoff Prevere
Interview with director Peter Raymont
Excerpt reading by Lt. General Roméo Dallaire
Photo gallery
distributor
Metrodome
release date
3 September 2007

review posted
14 September 2007