As a concept, Romeo Dallaire is everywhere: he's a book, a television documentary, a feature film, a novel -- even a video game. Last week he was at the Sundance Film Festival, tonight Peter Raymont's documentary, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire, which won the audience award for world cinema documentary at Sundance, airs at 9 p.m. on the CBC's The Passionate Eye.
When I caught up with Dallaire, he was between speaking engagements in North Bay, Ont., and Sudbury on a stopover on his way back to Harvard where he is a Carr Fellow for Human Rights Policy. From there he's setting off on a book tour to promote the American edition of his award-winning memoirs, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.
He's exhausted and yet invigorated by the response he's getting, particularly from high school and university students. "It reminds me of how we were in the 1960s," he says, "and wanting to do something more than just keep the system and ourselves going."
The once private man has gone very public about his suffering and his guilt as head of the failed United Nations Peacekeeping Mission to Rwanda. Since the spring of 1994 when he lived through the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis he's been to hell and back more times than most of us go on vacation.
Although he tries, with medication and therapy, to control the demons that assault his memory , he will probably be haunted for the rest of his life. Anything, including displays of luscious fruit and vegetables in his local grocery store, can bring back the images and stench of horribly mangled corpses rotting among the tropical fruit in the marketplaces in Kigali.
He doesn't want anybody to forget what happened there and he's hoping that if he keeps writing and speaking about the atrocities the world will be more attuned to human rights abuses in other non-Western areas. Still, doesn't he feel like a movie star after Sundance, where Robert Redford, no less, asked to meet with him privately before personally introducing the film at a packed screening?
"I heard beforehand that he was interested in speaking to me and I found that magnificent as I knew he was involved in social concerns, so we talked about some of the stuff he does and what I do for about 20 minutes. He is a very self-effacing gentleman," Dallaire said.
Redford, apparently, was delighted to learn that Dallaire loves his 1985 film, Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep as the Danish writer Isak Dinesen, because of the music, the scenery and the love story.
Dallaire was "overjoyed" by the standing ovation from the audience and so was filmmaker Raymont. "It was awesome, [that Redford]brought his star status to the film and to the general and to the cause," Raymont said after getting off a plane from Park City, Utah. Obviously, Raymont wants a fuss made over his film -- he spent five years acquiring the rights and persuading Dallaire to participate -- but he too has become a proselytizer about the Rwandan genocide. "The idea is to reach as many people as possible," Raymont said. "That is his mission. He's devoted his life to it, but many people are doing things in their own way."
Essentially, the film picks up where the book ends. In the opening sequence we see Dallaire and his wife Elizabeth on the plane flying to Rwanda to attend the ceremonies commemorating the 10th anniversary of the massacre last spring. He seems restless, his piercing blue eyes darting as though he were already on patrol and seeking out danger. He always wanted to go back, but this journey is an affront to nostalgia because the stops on his itinerary are the ramshackle headquarters from which he sent his plaintive and then demanding faxes to his UN bosses, the killing sites now turned into shrines, a conference into the causes of the genocide, and meetings, planned and impromptu, with survivors and the families of victims.
The memoirs tell a much more incrementally detailed story, of course, but the film lets us watch Dallaire's jaw clenching and hear his voice cracking as he points out scenic spots to his wife and clasps her hand in mourning. We see her emotional response and hear her recollections of the frustrations her husband endured. As well, we witness Dallaire's famously controlled rage when he confronts a Belgian senator who is publicly voicing the calumny that the general allowed the murder of 10 Belgian soldiers and has since refused to communicate with their widows. We also watch the commemoration ceremonies with Dallaire and note the shameful absence of Western leaders.
Dallaire would be the first to agree that Rwanda was a transforming experience. It changed him from a peacetime career soldier, eager for command, into a traumatized survivor of a genocide that the rich nations he represented willfully and callously ignored. But there was a larger shift than the undermining of one man's psyche. In a bizarre way, Dallaire's private suffering has become his public strength. Who can read his book, watch the documentary or hear him speak and not be moved? He is both a witness to the West's perfidy in Rwanda and a crusader for the kind of multinational co-operation and intervention that might prevent similar tragedies in the future.
The book and the documentary are far from the only interpretations of Dallaire and the massacre out there in the marketplace. He pops up these days in the most unlikely places -- the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda, an award-winning novel by Québécois journalist Gil Courtemanche, and an interactive teaching video, among them.
And there are other interpretations in the works. Hotel Rwanda producer Martin Katz, has told The Globe that he's developing a film about Dallaire, although the general says he's yet to hear of it. And former Salter Street executive Michael Donovan, now of Halifax films (who sold the documentary rights to Raymont), has been working on a dramatic screenplay for a film about Dallaire for five years now. The general, who has final approval of the script, says he's happy with the angle Donovan is taking.
Altogether that makes seven different takes, not all of them empathetic, on Dallaire. It's as though he is the shifting glass in a kaleidoscope that is being turned by himself and half a dozen others. Each view comes from a slightly different perspective. Together they present a panorama -- a jarring one, but a panorama nonetheless.
The harshest view of Dallaire was the earliest representation to appear. Journalist Gil Courtemanche published his novel, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, in Quebec in 2000 where it won the Prix des Libraires. Courtemanche, a disaffected Quebec political commentator, was in Rwanda in the late 1980s documenting the spread of AIDS in Africa -- another vastly under-reported story, at least at the time -- for a non-governmental agency.
Courtemanche's novel, which opens in the winter of 1993 around the pool of the luxurious European-owned Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, is told in the voice of Valcourt, a cynical Québécois journalist. Openly scornful of the "Canadian general" in charge of the UN forces, Valcourt seems to be acting out our national ethnic disputes as much as Rwandan ones. There are no heroes in this sexually brutalized landscape, but it does provide a coherent background to the hatred and rivalry between the Hutus and the Tutsis.
By contrast, there is a very strong hero in Hotel Rwanda, the story of Paul Rusesabagina, (superbly played by American actor Don Cheadle), the Hutu manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines. This film recreates the story of how Rusesabagina turned the hotel into a refuge for more than 1,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus while the machete-wielding guerrilla force, the Interahamwe, was on its 100-day rampage. Bizarrely, the head of the UN peacekeeping force (played by Nick Nolte as a whisky-slugging stumbler) has been downgraded to a Colonel, although he still wears a Canadian flash on the shoulder of his uniform.
Surprisingly, Dallaire is not too bothered by the film. "It's got a Hollywood twist to it," he admits, "but that is okay. It tells a segment of a horrific catastrophe, which I hope will touch a lot of young adults, so that is positive."
"So you don't mind being played by Nick Nolte?" I venture.
"That is a whole other question and I'm not going to go down that route," he says with a laugh, although he does allow that there are no plans to cast Nolte in the projected Donovan film.
Clearly, Dallaire has the power to make some of us listen -- although one can't help but despair at the thought of Elie Wiesel, that articulate and eloquent survivor of the Holocaust, speaking to a half-empty room at the United Nations last week. Whether Dallaire has the strength to make us change our behaviour remains to be seen. And that's where yet another Dallaire-based product comes into play.
Andreas Ua'Siaghail (pronounced O'Shields) and his Pax Warrior colleagues were at the Canadian Film Institute, casting about for a project when the story about Dallaire being found drunk on a park bench made headlines back in June 2000. The pathos of that story gave them a focus that four years later has resulted in an interactive-learning module for senior high-school classes, university courses and leadership-training programs. Essentially, Pax Warrior ( http://www.paxwarrior.com) gives students and trainees enough background and content about Rwanda, the UN and Dallaire to push themselves through the crises he faced. At every stage the interactive software asks: "What would you do?"
At first, the name Pax Warrior made Dallaire think it was just another violent computer video game, but the more he worked with the new media types, the more convinced he became of the merits of their interactive teaching tool. "It brings all the weight of the moral and ethical dilemmas in which students must see themselves in the future," he says. "They are in the entrails of the decision making."
So far Alberta has bought the software and several other educational jurisdictions are in negotiations with Pax Warrior. If it works, the teaching module will take Dallaire's message beyond passive listening into active learning.
And that ultimately is why Dallaire is driving himself so hard. "I could be sitting in Harvard on my fellowship doing research, but the opportunities are there for people to ponder the catastrophe that happened and I just feel that I am not allowed to let these things go by, if people think I can be of use." He's an old soldier with one final campaign to wage.