Thursday, November 11, 2010

Genocide in Our Times: Shake Hands with Devil

Kofi Annan has blood on his hands. He might not have personally fired a shot in Rwanda, but his actions ensured the violent Hutu extremists remained heavily armed. So claims Lietenant-General Roméo Dallaire, the French-Canadian military commander of the UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda. Based on Dallaire’s memoir, Roger Spottiswoode’s Shake Hands with the Devil (trailer here) is an incisive indictment of the UN’s willful negligence during the 1994 mass killings that opens tomorrow in New York.

Dallaire is a haunted man, haunted by the ghosts of 800,000 Rwandans who were murdered while he stood idly by, handcuffed by the UN’s restrictive rules of engagement and a lack of supplies. It need not have been so. As he first arrives at his post, the situation appears promising. All sides profess to want peace and are actively engaged in UN sponsored negotiations. Yet, there are troubling signs, like the growing presence of informal Hutu militias strutting through the streets.

Initially, the UN Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) seems to get a lucky break when a well-placed source steps forward with information about huge weapons stockpiles in the ruling Hutu party headquarters. However, before Dallaire can launch his planned operation to seize the arms, the UN peacekeeping command orders him to stand down. Instead of confiscating the arms, he is to inform the hardline Hutu president of what they know and he is forbidden to offer asylum to his informer. At this point, the die is cast. Annan and the UN might as well have issued a proclamation declaring genocide season officially open.

A strong likeness of the real Dallaire, Roy Dupuis (who could also pass for Bruce Campbell’s older brother) gives a depressingly good performance, vividly showing the General’s military bearing cracking under the weight of the horror and futility of his position. Indeed, Shake is a rare film that genuinely respects military figures, like Belgian Colonel Luc Marchal, portrayed with genuine humanity by Québécois actor Michel Mongeau.

Frankly, Shake is an angry film and well it should be. Still, Spottiswoode never loses sight of the visceral personal drama as Dallaire struggles to save as many Rwandans as he can—30,000 ultimately—and a semblance of his soul. Of course, he could have saved so many more lives had Annan and the UN made different decisions at several junctures. Dallaire and Shake do not let the U.S. off the hook either, excoriating American policy makers for opposing the use of the term “genocide” for the horrors unfolding in Rwanda because of the legal ramifications it carries. (For the record, Clinton, Albright, and Cohen would be the ones to thank for that stain on our national honor.)

Filmed on location in Rwandan, often at the sites of the actual genocidal atrocities, Shake is certainly realistic. Surprisingly though, there is very little graphic horror depicted on-screen, since viewers see the killings through Dallaire’s eyes, mostly after the fact. Mournful and damning, Shake is one of the best politically charged narrative films released theatrically this year (finally, after spending several years on the festival circuit). Highly recommended, it opens tomorrow (11/12) in New York at the Quad Cinema.