By Marc Glassman
With his handsome face lined by sorrow, a head full of prematurely grey hair and eyes haunted by the horrors he’s witnessed, Lt. General Romeo Dallaire is Canada’s secular saint. As the Force Commander of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, Dallaire’s attempts to prevent the brutal genocide of the Tutsi tribe by militant Hutus failed miserably. Almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus perished in 100 days during the summer of 1994 in a Holocaust of epic proportions. As Dallaire recounted in Shake Hands with the Devil, his Governor-General’s winning book, a slow-moving and ineffectual UN bureaucracy and the indifference of the outside world tied his hands. All he and his UN forces could do was to save as many innocent lives as possible. What he witnessed caused Dallaire to contemplate suicide before he righted himself and dedicated the rest of life to humanitarian concerns.
Now, the distinguished team of producers Michael Donovan (This Hour has 22 Minutes, Bowling for Columbine), Laszlo Barna (Da Vinci’s Inquest, Milgaard) and director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire, And the Band Played On) have dramatized the Dallaire story for the big screen; it will premiere at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). The trio did exceedingly well in casting Roy Dupuis as Dallaire: he looks and acts like the spitting image of the man. Just two years ago, Dupuis was perfect as hockey icon Maurice Richard in The Rocket; this is one actor whose skill and malleability rivals that of such greats as the young Alec Guinness or Ian McKellen. The film was shot in Rwanda, ensuring authenticity, and Dallaire vetted the production.
The audience experiences events from Dallaire’s point-of-view. The murder of Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, her husband and children, as well as a group of Belgian peacekeepers assigned by Dallaire to protect them, is shown in all of its horror. So is Dallaire’s disgust when he is forced to “shake hands with the devil,” the Hutu militant Interahamwe, in order to secure safe passage for Tutsis under his protection. We understand that the UN tied Dallaire’s hands and that he could do nothing to prevent mass murder.
It would be wonderful to report that all the preparation and good work evident in Shake Hands with the Devil had resulted in a great film. Sadly, that’s not the case, though the film itself is meticulous in its depiction of he downward spiral that took Rwanda during that tragic time, into a vortex of murder and despair. What’s missing is a sense of emotional linkage, of a connection between events and personalities. Like too many well-meaning epics, the film lacks a sensual tissue between scenes: the viewer doesn’t experience what they’re seeing on the screen.
Despite a terrific performance by Dupuis, we get no sense of him as a man having a day-to-day life in Rwanda. His relations with second-in-commands played by Tom McCamus and James Gallanders or with a feisty journalist essayed by Deborah Kara Unger are never allowed to unfold naturally. There are too many narrative points to cover for such personal touches to occur.
The result is a wonderfully well-intended film. One can only hope that the public will embrace Shake Hands with the Devil, despite its flaws.
There was, of course, a previous cinematic version of Shake Hands with the Devil, which also premiered at TIFF. That film was a terrific documentary by Peter Raymont, which framed Dallaire’s story around the General’s return to Rwanda after an absence of ten years. It was a far better dramatic device than Spottiswoode’s use of a psychologist, who listens to Dallaire as he re-imagines the Rwanda tragedy. Raymont’s film went on to win an award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and is currently short-listed for an International Emmy.
Now Raymont is back with another story of an individual’s dramatic encounter with civil war, armed violence and death. A Promise to the Dead: the Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman is one of only two Canadian documentary features at TIFF—the other is John Zaritsky’s Wild Horse Redemption—but it’s a dandy. Just as Raymont captured General Dallaire’s dignity and sorrow, the incisive and emotionally intelligent director presents the internationally acclaimed author Ariel Dorfman in his full complexity as a witty, charming but deeply engaged individual.
As a youthful idealist, Dorfman was part of Salvador Allende’s administration in Chile. Freely elected as a Socialist President in 1970, Allende was the subject of vicious criticism by the oligarchy that controlled Chile’s economy. While in power, the Socialists worked tirelessly to achieve land and wage reforms for the Chilean working people. With the help of the US’ CIA and Chile’s own military, Allende’s government was overthrown on September 11, 1973 and Dorfman went into exile.
Years later, Dorfman met a senior administrator who had escaped the deaths meted out by General Pinochet when he took over from Allende after the President died on that first 9/11. Dorfman, already well known as a gifted writer, asked why he wasn’t called to the Presidential Palace on that fateful day. He was told that a decision had been made, that Dorfman should go into exile, to tell the story of Chile to the world.
And that’s what happened. Dorfman kept his “promise to the dead.” In the play and the feature film Death and the Maiden, Dorfman achieved international renown for his artful depiction of retribution, death, guilt and fear. Juliet Stevenson and Glenn Close on stage and Sigourney Weaver on film have all taken on the role of Paulina, a brilliant character who deals with her role as victim in complex and moving ways.
An intellectual and “wandering” Jew with a sense of humour and irony, Dorfman, like Paulina, is not a typical political character. Both understand what it’s like to win or lose wars. In the most revelatory scene, Dorfman surprises everyone by offering regrets to a woman in despair over the death of Pinochet. To Dorfman, democracy is based on civility, so he should feel compassion for his enemy. Of course, the woman is horrified when Dorfman suggests that she should feel remorse for the death of Pinochet.
A Promise to the Dead is a beautifully realized portrait of a writer and Duke University professor whose understanding of humanity encompasses the two 9/11s, both of which he experienced as a man committed to that country. With this film and the one on Dallaire, it is clear that Peter Raymont is one of this country’s and the world’s finest documentarians.