When the World Turned Its Back, One Man Stood Up

19/03/2011 11:04

Review of Shake Hands with the Devil (2007), dir. Roger Spottiswoode

Shake Hands with the Devil retells an astonishing chapter in the world history through the eyes of Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian Lieutenant General who witnessed the unreasonable slaughter of 800,000 people in a country that at the time the killing took place stood behind God’s back. As the genocide raged, Dallaire was compelled to peer into the heart of darkness, witness the loss of humanity and shake hands with the devil.

The feature film follows an eponymous documentary, which opened the Sundance Festival in 2005, and an acclaimed bestselling memoir book, in which Romeo Dallaire, the surviving General, a mentally tortured man reliving the horrors he could not stop, recounts the crimes of Rwanda’s civil war. He audaciously condemns the UN and their failure to heed his urgent pleas for assistance to halt the oncoming massacre.

As the tensions between the rebels led by the minority Tutsi ethnic group and the French-government-supported Hutu majority intensify rapidly, Romeo Dallaire, in charge of the peace-keeping force UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda), is dispatched to Rwanda to ensure that the unstable peace is maintained. Dallaire knows all too well that the moment the Hutus scent a chance of wreaking vengeance upon the more vulnerable Tutsis, they will be unstoppable. He tries to negotiate with the Tutsi rebels, the armed Hutus and Interhamwe militia (“those who stand, fight and kill together”), but all his effort comes to nothing. When on 6 April 1994 the Rwandan President’s airplane is shot down, hell on Earth unleashes overnight. The long-planned campaign of Tutsi minority extermination begins in Kigali with the assassination of Rwanda’s Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. The scene with Romeo Dallaire hearing the Prime Minister’s last words as the rebels put her house on fire and mercilessly massacre her family is a heart-wrenching image of bestial cruelty. The militia groups kill the Tutsi minority en masse as well as the political moderates irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds. The genocide spreads with unprecedented swiftness leaving 800,000 dead Tutsis and moderate Hutus behind. Abandoned by western powers, Romeo Dallaire helplessly watches as thousands of innocent civilians are slaughtered in less than 100 days.  What is so inhuman about the Rwandan war is that from day one the U.N. Security Council avoided using the word genocide because under International Law it would require them to act. Dallaire pleads the UN headquarters to reconsider the rules of the mission and proposes 5,000 American peace-keepers be sent to Rwanda. But instead the UN turns their back on him, playing blind and deaf. President Bill Clinton later admitted that had he sent the troops to Rwanda before the killing escalated, 500,000 civilians might have been saved. Dallaire, with lightly armored force reduced to some 250 men, managed to save 30,000 people. The peace-keeping operation of the United Nations – an organization of such enormous leverage – failed completely. Under-funded, under-staffed, and overbureaucratic, it turned out to be largely ineffective in the face of the Rwandan civil war.

Dallaire devises a thorough plan of military and humanitarian aid that, if approved, could put an end to the genocide right away. In the midst of bombing and explosion of grenades, he asks the UN headquarters in New York to pass the plan to the Security Council immediately. Sadly, the man on the other end of the line fails to recognize the urgency of the plea and says it will have to wait until Monday (Thursday is the day of speaking). Unabashedly, he puts down the receiver with a feeble apology that he cannot hear Dallaire. The sheer bureaucracy of the official will make you want to scream. 

Mostly a one-man-show, Shake Hands with the Devil is also a story of a commander that is torn between his duty and conscience. Romeo Dallaire is a soldier under orders and his orders are to use armed force only in self-defense, and if he does otherwise he will be relieved of his command and court-martialed. In the military, obedience is everything. Disobeying an order for a soldier is like breaking a vow for a priest. He is given an ultimatum: either he ensures peace or he is to withdraw his men and come home. With due respect to his superiors, he chooses to stay and bear witness to what the rest of the world does not want to see. Dallaire’s helplessness and frustration is deepening and all the more visible as the shortage of men and equipment increases. Despair is a sin that cannot be forgiven. Dallaire does not only show that he is a great general but, what’s more, that he is human.

Our rivers are washed with the blood of those we couldn’t save. Dumped under the planks of a bridge across a stream Dallaire finds a mass grave of helpless victims. Heaps of dead bodies, mouths wide open, eyes turned upward, Tutsi women raped and humiliated. The tears Dallaire sheds are tears of helplessness and sorrow. He cannot do more but shoot the furious dogs that attack meek, innocent goats that Dallaire saves so that they would remind him of life.


The public would eventually learn about the horrors of the massacre years after when Dallaire was found drunk and unconscious on a park bench in Ottawa. The horrors that Dallaire had seen and could not prevent left him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and in need of therapy. The ghosts of the innocent victims have haunted him ever since. The film is shot through flashbacks as Dallaire retells his experience at a psychiatrist’s office. It is not a pretty picture and there’s little wonder. The film depicts in graphic detail the corpses that were found, the bombardment of a refugees’ camp at a sports stadium, sexual assaults perpetrated against the Tutsi women, the aftermath of the massacre of children at a Polish church or the bombardment of a hospital with people literally torn to pieces, human flesh stuck to walls, limbs ripped off bodies and strewn everywhere.

Romeo Dallaire is portrayed by Roy Dupuis, the iconic Quebecois thespian that bears a strikingly close resemblance to the Canadian General. The look in his eyes betrays the emotional depth that is tested by the madness unfolding around him. Dupuis is even wearing Dallaire’s original army nametag and decorations from 1994, which add a touch of genuine authenticity to the film. Dallaire’s collaboration on the project (he reviewed the script line by line) is also visible—no director could have created such an emotionally-draining picture of human failure unless he had been guided by someone who lived through the massacre and had the scenes unfold in front of his eyes as vivid bloodstained images that would never fade.

                                         Roy Dupuis                         Romeo Dallaire

The figures concerning the number of people killed between April 6 and the mid July differ, but what it all boils down to is that there certainly was a genocide and that it was an organized attempt to systematically exterminate all the Tutsis – men, women, children – and wipe out the memories of their existence. It is probably the saddest film I have ever seen. I believe I have not done justice to this movie by what I have just written. Every word sounds hollow and meaningless in comparison to what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Everybody should watch either this movie or the documentary. Not because it’s worth it, but because the innocent people that died in Rwanda deserve it. The whole world should know.

Zuzana Starovecká

Photo source: tribute.ca