With his intense, beady eyes, strong cleft chin, and neatly cropped hair and mustache, Romeo Dallaire looks every bit the part of Orwell’s “Big Brother,’ but as we see in Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian Lt.-General demonstrates none of the qualities of a Fascist dictator. Put in command of the UN peacekeeping mission during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Dallaire was at the forefront of a battle he could not win. This documentary tells both the story of his efforts during the conflict, as well as his personal demons and continued efforts to educate the world of the strife of Rwanda and similar third world countries since.
Based on Dallaire’s Governor General Award winning book of the same name, the film documents his return to Rwanda 10 years after the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, which took place over the course of 100 days.
Documentarian Peter Raymont is successful in delivering one man’s story set against the backdrop of a country’s tragedy. Dallaire’s entire time spent in Rwanda was shrouded by hopelessness, but the General possessed a conscience and a humanity that would not let him leave until exhaustion and insanity nearly overtook him. His heroics were not those of the classic Hollywood form, but came in the form of his perseverance to alert the world of this genocide that theoretically could have ended much earlier had more international attention and aid been received.
With recent films such as Hotel Rwanda (in which Nick Nolte plays a “composite” character partly based on Dallaire), people are only now becoming educated on these events, which took place over a decade ago, a time where the Western world’s news was dominated by the exploits of Tanya Harding and O.J.
Raymont divides the screen time between Dallaire and stock footage of the actual events in which we learn of the conflict’s history and are shown images of brutal violence. However, these images of violence are few and far between; we need only see the displays of emotion from Dallaire and other first hand accounts to know that these events forever changed the lives of all that survived them.
Although the film could easily be accused of putting Dallaire on a pedestal, the General himself maintains the utmost humility. Despite all the praise he receives, he still cannot see past the failures of his mission, in which he and his men were rendered impotent while situated right in the middle of a turbulent war zone.
Dallaire’s return to Rwanda 10 years after is not only for the documentary’s sake, but serves as a form of therapy as Dallaire has since dealt with post traumatic stress, depression, alcoholism and even attempted suicide. Also surprising, is the General’s sometimes poetic and articulate accounts of his experiences and emotional state during them.
While viewing this film, it would be hard for any Canadian not to cherish the idea of this stoic military role model, as we are shown many of his peers raining down their praise, and only few of his critics. Raymont is not trying to create a Canada’s Oskar Schindler, which Dallaire will be the first to tell you he is far from being. But what we are presented with is a truly admirable human being who believes the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus to be just as important as 800,000 whites, and who did everything in his power to get this message to the powers that be. The documentary is an overall success in thoughtfully conveying both the struggles of a country in peril, and those of an outsider placed in the middle of the hostility. A film that makes you proud to be Canadian, but ashamed to belong to a species capable of perpetrating and ignoring such inherent evil.
Shake Hand with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire opens at Cinema du Parc this Friday.