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Shake Hands With the Devil: The Rwandan genocide revisited, without an uplifting message

2.5 out of 4 stars


Shake Hands with the Devil

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

Written by Michael Donovan

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Starring Roy Dupuis

Classification: 14A


Melancholic more than moving, reflective rather than impassioned, Shake Hands with the Devil is the dramatic telling of Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire's personal trauma while witnessing the mass murder in 1994 of Rwanda's Tutsi minority. With a script written by Canadian Michael Donovan, the movie is based on Dallaire's first-person account of his experiences. The director is Roger Spottiswoode, whose work ranges from blockbusters (the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies) to socially conscious fare such as the Nicaraguan drama Under Fire and the AIDS film And the Band Played On.

Having been scooped by Peter Raymont's Emmy-winning documentary with a similar name ( Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire) on the same subject, the movie starts at a disadvantage and never makes an entirely compelling case for revisiting the horror, beyond the argument that we can't be reminded of these events too often.

Starring Roy Dupuis as the general, the action unfolds largely in awkward flashback. The action moves between the events leading up to and including the genocide, and months later, when the general is in his psychiatrist's office, where characters from his past appear in conversation with him. The awful, if now familiar events, are systematically reconstructed, from the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana in a plane crash that triggered the hate campaign against Rwanda's Tutsi minority. Next comes the evacuation of the mostly white foreigners, the murder of the Belgian United Nations peacekeepers and then the full-scale slaughter unfolds.

The film does not hold back in condemning the indifference of the West and indicting the United Nations as complicit in the crimes, as Dallaire was left torn between his hand-tying orders and his conscience. We see how Dallaire defied orders to leave and managed to save about 30,000 lives, but Shake Hands with the Devil does not attempt to convey an uplifting message of individual heroism in the face of calamity as, for example, Hotel Rwanda did.

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That film also featured a blustering, hard-drinking United Nations general, played by Nick Nolte and apparently modelled on Dallaire. If nothing else, Shake Hands with the Devil serves as a historical correction to that cartoonish character.

In the role of Dallaire, Dupuis does a believable job capturing the man's forceful physical bearing and later, his despair as he begins to succumb to exhaustion and an emotional breakdown. There are moments of calculated shock: a woman slips on a puddle of blood; bodies bob up from the water through a gap in a footbridge, but at its best, the film is matter-of-fact grotesquerie: Dallaire discovers the bodies of the Belgian UN workers tossed in a pile outside a hospital. There's a quietly eerie scene where he walks, unprotected, through an enemy village, almost inviting snipers to shoot him, wearing the long stare of a man who has lost a reason to live.

The supporting actors, including Tom McCamus as Dallaire's aide, are mostly convincing, with the glaring exception of the part played by Deborah Kara Unger as a generic American television reporter. For a film that went to the trouble of shooting on the actual Rwandan locations where the events took place, it relies on a lazy, movie-of-the-week cliché. In lieu of anything so crude as a romantic interest, the truth still comes down to one pretty TV reporter with a ready microphone who pops in with a promise to tell the general's story to the world.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More


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