“Shake Hands with the Devil”–The Backstory to “Hotel Rwanda”
A Sundance award-winning documentary, this film takes the viewer to the hell experienced by General Romeo Dallaire, who was assigned to lead UN peace-keeping forces in Rwanda in the spring of 1994. In 100 days approximately 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered, most of them Tutsis at the hands of the Hutus. The images of heaps of dead bodies, and rooms filled with skulls, are more harrowing than anything I’ve seen in cinema.
General Dallaire returns to Rwanda ten years after the massacres in 2004, with his wife protectively guiding him through the landscape of his traumatic past like treacherous land mines waiting to explode. Told through this remarkable Canadian general’s eyes in a series of horrific flashbacks and post-traumatic memories, we witness his powerlessness and frustration, and his terrible remorse. Interviews with some of his UN colleagues and BBC reporters support Dallaire accounts: his horror, profound regret, and his shaken belief in human values. Despite the general’s repeated alerts to the impending bloodbath, UN officials in New York—with European and American disinterest— did nothing. While Dallaire was promised 5,000 soldiers for a scheduled election of a new president, the soldiers were never supplied, leaving his peacekeeping mission impotent. Refusing to leave the country during the reign of terror, this unsung warrior tried to save as many lives as possible. And all hell broke out.
Both heroic and philosophical, this Canadian commander remembers “the most evil imaginable” with a heartbreaking vulnerability that is only a thin membrane away from what seems uncomfortably close to a nervous breakdown. The anniversary trip was likely a necessary step in his recovery from post-traumatic stress, in the healing of horrific psychic wounds, which left him depressed and suicidal after his return to Canada. Some semblance of order and stability returned to Rwanda by the time of his visit in retirement and he is given a hero’s welcome. Participating in the commemorative ceremonies of the 2004 bloodbath, Dallaire delivers a quiet but searing and devastating speech.
Many reasons are given for the West’s indifference, most conspicuously, there was nothing anybody wanted from Rwanda. It was convenient to dismiss the civil war as African tribal feuding, with an implied racism. “Shake Hands with the Devil” is a reminder of the cost of indifference.
[Available on Netflix; Note–Not to be confused with the low-quality drama by the same name, produced in 2007, the documentary “Shake Hands with the Devil” is dated 2005 .]