This Is My Truth. Tell Me Yours

18 mins read

There is an indelible moment in Peter Raymont’s documentary Shake Hands With the Devil in which retired Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, ten years removed from his ordeal as the head of the embattled U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda, steps out of an airplane and back onto that country’s soil for the first time as a civilian. Raymont’s camera stays at a discreet observational distance, but there is no mistaking the expression on Dallaire’s face. He looks as if he’s seen a ghost.

That’s because he has. Shake Hands With the Devil takes its title from Dallaire’s Governor General-award winning book, in which the author gives not only a candid account of his time in Rwanda, but also of the psychological problems that plagued him upon his return to Canada and for years afterward. It took a great deal of courage for Dallaire to return to Rwanda and face the ghosts—more than a million strong—of the people he tried so desperately to help.

Raymont’s film debuted to acclaim at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and will have a prestigious U.S. launch at the 2005 Sundance Festival but it was upstaged to a certain degree by Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, a feature film treating similar subject matter that won TIFF’s Audience Award. (George’s film has since garnered a number of major U.S. awards nominations, including a Golden Globe nod for Best Picture.) Hotel Rwanda is also a true story about a pivotal individual, Paul Rusesabagina, played in the film by Don Cheadle. Rusesabagina was a hotel manager who bravely used his four-star establishment, a Belgian-owned “oasis” catering to an upscale white tourist clientele, to house refugees during the worst days of the genocide. Romeo Dallaire figures into Hotel Rwanda, too, but in a fictionalized form. Nick Nolte plays “Colonel Oliver,” whose uniform features the insignia of a Canadian flag and whose characterization—a proud, defiant but compassionate soldier shouldering immense personal and professional burdens—is clearly modeled on Dallaire.

Given the close proximity of their releases, the desire to compare and contrast the two films is understandable. For his part, Raymont, whose career in documentary film and television programming spans thirty years, says he was impressed with Hotel Rwanda. “It’s a good film. I was moved by it when I saw it… I cried. The performance by Don Cheadle was remarkable.” He adds that Dallaire was somewhat fazed when he learned he was being played by Nick Nolte—“he thought it was sort of bizarre.” But Raymont prefers to refocus the discussion away from the particulars of the two films and towards a discussion of the issues. “Anything anyone does to explore what the hell happened in Rwanda ten years ago is all to the good.”

Hotel Rwanda’s politics and humanism are ostensibly admirable. But one of the limitations of feature filmmaking is the imperative of selective presentation. This problem was highlighted in 2004 by a deluge of Hollywood biopics that tried, and mostly failed, to shape their subjects’ lives to the contours of a rigorous dramatic arc. (One exception: Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator, which succeeded by taking an obsessive approach to an obsessive subject, Howard Hughes.) Hotel Rwanda is, for all intents and purposes, a film about Paul Rusesabagina, and despite its virtues as a character piece, thanks largely to Cheadle’s performance, it also labors mightily to impose a sense of dramatic comprehension on a subject that palpably resists it.

The impossibility of reducing the history of the Rwandan genocide to a study of two pathologies—good and evil—or a series of plot incidents is something that Raymont’s film understands. By limiting its focus to Dallaire, and the accounts of those who served with him, Shake Hands With the Devil resists any tendencies towards generalization. It is understood, right from the first sequence of Dallaire’s return to Rwanda, that this is a film about one man’s experiences. The ghosts Dallaire may be facing are his own, and any insights that are forthcoming in the doc, be it to the nature of the conflict, the inadequacy of his superiors, or the fallout of events are his as well, and not the filmmaker’s.

This is not to say that Raymont doesn’t have his own opinions about Rwanda, or the failure of the international community to come to its aid back in 1994, or Dallaire himself. Actually, he has plenty. “What was on television back in ‘94?” he asks pointedly. “The OJ Simpson trial. One black man, but he was a star, a public figure. Here he was amidst murder, and scandal. You didn’t have to understand the complexities of that situation to watch it.”

Raymont’s point about the callowness of a media that would focus on the legal travails of one well-known African American while ignoring the internecine slaughter of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Africans is well taken. His achievement in Shake Hands With the Devil lies in letting the facts– and Dallaire—speak for themselves. There are several title cards that establish dates for both the older footage and the present-day material; that’s all the context we get, and that is necessary. Raymont emphasizes that faithfulness to Dallaire’s book and its intensely personal storytelling was his guiding principle, and why he took himself out of the on screen equation. “This is how it works with a film,” he says. “A lot of people might see this film before they read the book, or instead of reading it. It’s not an easy read; it’s tough slogging. But I hope the film doesn’t lose any of the nuance.”

George makes attempts at nuance in Hotel Rwanda, but they’re bludgeoning, all the same. His tactics for generating context are twofold: direct dramatic address and background noise. The former approach appears in an early scene involving an American cameraman played by Joaquin Phoenix. Arriving early on the scene, camera in hand, he demands an explanation for the tribal hatred between the Hutus and the Tutsis, ostensibly to aid his own understanding of his surroundings, but also to orient audiences unfamiliar with the region’s history. Fair enough, but the response he’s given by a local journalist, who conveniently happens to be sitting next to him at the bar, is perfunctory and quickly forgotten. The implication that Rwanda’s original Belgian colonizers might be responsible for the tribal divide through their favourable treatment of the Tutsis dissipates, leaving only a collection of hulking Hutu villains who speak like standard-issue Hollywood bad guys.

It could be argued that the vilification of the Hutu militia in Hotel Rwanda is justified, as they were the brutal aggressors in the conflict. But George can be accused of overstating the case: the Hutu announcer cackling messages of hate over the airwaves speaks in a demonic low-register like the supernatural villain in a Japanese horror film. The radio broadcasts are Hotel Rwanda’s attempt at exposition through background noise, but they’re often deployed crassly, to generate suspense with regard to the fate of Rusesabagina and his family, as when a convoy carrying refugees (including Paul’s wife) is reported—with glee—to be heading into an ambush.

Shake Hands With the Devil, meanwhile, is informed by Dallaire’s rage at the Belgian military, which withdrew their support for the UN intervention after several of their troops were murdered. Raymont’s film doesn’t vilify the Belgians outright, but it does include footage of Dallaire fending off accusations ten years after the fact from an insinuating Belgian senator who believes the most salient unresolved issue is not the failure of his own government to help save lives in Rwanda, but Dallaire’s failure to meet with the families of the soldiers killed “on his watch.” Raymont asserts that the accusation is false: “a day or two prior to that,” he recalls, “(Dallaire) had been trying to arrange a meeting with the widows in Kigali.”

In Hotel Rwanda, the Belgian military is merely lumped with those of other European countries. The hurried retreat of international soldiers from Rwanda is depicted in George’s film, but the emotional emphasis gets placed more on the guilty conscience of the white evacuees, who gaze forlornly at the doomed Tutsi refugees from the windows of their buses. The film confers well-meaning impotence on its white characters, including its Dallaire surrogate Colonel Oliver, who, in a moment that aims for brutal honesty but comes off as forced, informs Rusesabagina, “You’re not even a nigger. You’re African,” by way of explanation for why his professional hands are tied.

Anyone who watches Shake Hands With the Devil will understand why the moment rings false: despite Dallaire’s well-known reputation for curt honesty—“he isn’t schooled in media speak,” confirms Raymont, almost admiringly—there’s nothing in his interviews that hints at such insensitivity. “Some saw Dallaire as a hot-head, emotional,” Raymont admits, but watching him speak in the film, he leaves an impression of thoughtfulness. In his speech to a large crowd at Bhutari, many of whom had relatives who died in the massacres, Dallaire puts the on us of responsibility on himself. His forthrightness in accepting blame is heartbreaking, especially since it’s also clearly unnecessary. Shake Hands With the Devil presents Dallaire as a complex individual to be sure, but even though the film is bereft of the soft-focus myth making that taints many profiles, it is difficult to imagine feeling anything but admiration for its subject.

We also feel admiration for Cheadle’s Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, but not necessarily for the filmmakers. One sequence in particular reveals the hypocrisy of George’s approach. Returning from a meeting with a Hutu leader whom he has overpaid to secure supplies for the Tutsis hiding in the hotel, Rusesabagina heads home before sunrise. His car begins to shake, as if the road below is bumpy. His driver stops the car, and as the fog clears, the film reveals the bodies of countless Rwandans strewn across the road.

The slow-reveal nature of the sequence is frankly revolting: the intent is austerity, but the physical distance between the camera and the corpses can’t disguise George’s shock tactics. The horrific panorama is initially denied to us through a haze of only-in-the-movies fog—the kind that undulates in time to the soundtrack — to heighten our eventual reaction to its discovery. This is horror moviemaking in the guise of socially conscious drama. When Raymont includes actual footage of atrocities in Shake Hands With the Devil, there is no attempt to render them artfully, no ominous music cues (as in Hotel Rwanda) to underscore the impact of what we are seeing. One of Raymont’s few non-naturalistic touches, which super imposes real images of corpses at the side of the road over present-day footage of the same paths, is both poetic and to the point. So is a final, haunting image of a child’s eyes floating amongst clouds that recalls Abbas Kiarostami’s ABC Africa.

Returning to Raymont’s statement—“anything anyone does to explore what the hell happened in Rwanda ten years ago, is all to the good”—it is indeed difficult to excoriate Hotel Rwanda too thoroughly. Its heart is obviously in the right place. But like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, its most obvious structural model, its synthesis of historical drama and character study is queasy. By tethering itself so closely to its protagonist, Hotel Rwanda’s makers succeed in making its audience care about Cheadle’s Rusesabagina, but at the expense of objectively rendering the circumstances around him.

The film’s finale is the most awkward moment of all, with a Tutsis cavalry charge—edited like an old-school Western, the murder of the bad-guy Tutus framed heroically—sparing Rusesabagina and his family, who then stumble across their niece and nephew at a refugee camp before walking off into the sunset. The closing title card, informing us that more than a million Rwandans died before the end of the conflict, is almost an afterthought to the beatific tableaux: our hero has survived, and so the story is over.

There is no sense in Shake Hands With the Devil that the story is over. As Dallaire’s book proved, his own struggles only began once he returned home. But while Hotel Rwanda’s screenplay deals indefinitively tied loose ends, Raymont’s film leaves on a revelation of potent hopefulness: Dallaire and his wife have decided to move to Rwanda for a year. After that first wrenching scene on the Rwandan airstrip, such a decision would have seemed impossible. Romeo Dallaire’s catharsis is not absolute. He is still clearly haunted by his experiences, as any sane person would be. His decision to revisit his past in his book was not an easy one, but Raymont’s focus and rapport with his subject ensures that on film, Shake Hands With the Devil was worth the struggle: both as a stand-alone piece of work about one man’s path towards catharsis, and also as a necessary counterpoint to the well-meaning but compromised effort at memorializing the genocide in Hotel Rwanda.

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

Previous Story

There’s Too Much Love in the World

Next Story

CanDocs – Winter 2004

Latest from Blog

DOC Atlantic Today

Voices from the Atlantic Chapter of the Documentary Organization and independent filmmakers from the region call

0 $0.00