Shake Hands With the Devil

4 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: January 12, 2008
Reviewed at the 2008 Palm Springs International Film Festival
If only there'd been oil

As Force Commander of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda) since its creation by the UN Security Council in October 1993, General Roméo Dallaire was saddled with the impossible task of keeping the peace after the civil war between Tutsis and Hutus “officially” ended and the transitional government was preparing the way for elections. With just four hundred troops (many of them Belgian—a violation of the UN’s own rules that peace forces should not include previous “colonists”), little weaponry, less ammo and a “shoot only when fired upon” order, the blue berets could do little more than scold all sides as machete-sliced bodies piled up.

Dallaire’s descent into the dark side is well known. Now, the autobiography, which chronicles how his personal hell-on-earth was largely fueled by an uncaring world (both the U.S. and the U.K. fought like the devil to avoid allowing the official use of the “g” word—genocide—to force them into a conflict that would have no bag of gold at its conclusion) and the United Numbness’ policies of pre-ordained failure, has been brought to horrific life through Roger Spottiswoode’s deft direction and Roy Dupuis’ gritty portrayal of the troubled soldier.

The country’s breathtaking sweep stands in stark contrast to the unbelievable carnage (estimates range from 800,000 to 1,000,000 killed during the 100-day “cleansing” that was ignited by the plane crash where casualties included both Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi’s President Cyprien Ntaryamira) that filled the pristine countryside’s rivers, roads and Kigali’s streets with gallons of blood and tons of rotting flesh as past scores were settled, stoking the unstoppable fires of revenge with every body that fell. Does anyone really believe the world can find peace?

Compared with other roles (notably Manners of Dying, cross-reference below) Dupuis gives a more restrained performance than might have been the case if his character had been fictional and not a present-day Canadian Senator. Still, Dallaire’s courage and ability to do whatever it takes (notably shaking hands with the leaders of the ruthless rebels—their sorry fingers bloodied from thousands of victims whose only offence was to be born to the wrong tribe) comes across in every scene. Undaunted by the deteriorating reality around him, he makes endless personal appeals trying to negotiate with all sides (and being ordered to take none—there are more than just two in this complex dilemma of the damned), knowing all the while that he has little authority and few military resources to wield any kind of stick if the promises made are broken.

Not surprisingly, this version of the displaced, death-threatened refugees setting up camp in L’Hôtel des Milles Collines is far removed from Hotel Rwanda—Hollywood’s contribution to this awful story (cross-reference below). Instead of the drunken, quasi heroics from Canadian Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), Spottiswoode and screenwriter Michael Donovan have opted to dwell more on the behind-the-scenes dithering that, indirectly, sent thousands to an early death.

Then as now, the world recoils as the various documentations of those horrors become available for all who wish to see. Yet there is still no global learning from these atrocities where all parties (including those who chose or continue to walk down the path of willful blindness) decide to band together and become the tribe of humanity, insuring that such despicable, cowardly vicious acts never happen again. Cut to Kenya 2008 where uncircumsized boys and men of the Luo tribe—deemed inferior and unworthy to govern because of a natural covering of their “manhood”—are routinely killed by some “hoodless” and, therefore, “wise” Kikuyus intent on preaching the gospel of superiority.

In the bigger picture, Dallaire’s journey is but a baby step along the road to real peace. (Nonetheless the very fact that it can be told offers hope to the weak and oppressed.) But as long as there are those who cynically sing of its virtues, yet frequently and secretly plant metaphorical and real landmines to clear the way for those of less consequence (and steal their precious resources), how will we ever arrive? JWR

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