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Romeo Dallaire is overcome by the sheer magnitude of the death toll in Rwanda during this award winning documentary.
Image courtesy Microfilms

Movie Review: Return to Rwanda-Rwanda land

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Bodies piled upon each other are left to rot in the sun like overripe vegetables. Dead women, children and men--most of them dispatched with hacking blows from a machete or a gunshot to the head--litter city streets and the countryside. The dead, too numerous to bury individually, must be burnt or shoveled into mass graves.

It seems an apt description of hell, and one clearly not lost on the retired Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire. Documented in Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the United Nations peacekeeping mission during the 1994 genocide has every reason to make the comparison.

Following Dallaire on his first trip back to Rwanda in April 2004 to mark the ten-year anniversary of the genocide, Canadian film-maker Peter Raymont flips between archival news footage, contemporary interviews and filmed segments when Dallaire revisits the places he left behind a decade earlier.

Based on Dallaire's national bestselling book of the same name, Shake Hands With the Devil balances a concise history of the events leading up to the genocide and a revealing portrait of Dallaire himself. Enraptured by Dallaire's narration, one cannot help but feel compassion and a sense of frustration for the man's efforts and the victims themselves.

While the western world was fascinated with the O.J. Simpson trial, over 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates were murdered in the span of a 100 days by Hutu extremists. Pleading to a UN Security Council uninterested in helping a country with no resources or strategic value, Dallaire witnessed the failure of an international system unwilling to step in and stop mass murder.

Yet it's clear in the first minutes of Shake Hands With the Devil that for the man tasked with securing peace in this central African country, the failure lies as much in himself as it does on the world. Utilizing interviews with colleagues and journalists who worked along side Dallaire during the genocide, the film celebrates the unsuccessful efforts of a man willing to put everything on the line to make the world listen. In the end, the failure for Dallaire was a personal one, leading to a battle with depression that would ultimately land Dallaire in the hospital.

Although Dallaire has been derided by critics for his failure to stop the killing (He was fiercely blamed by some Belgians for the deaths of ten Belgian soldiers under his command during the first days of the genocide), Raymont paints a complex portrait of Dallaire. The director is able to provide insight into the mind of a man torn apart by his own feelings of helplessness and guilt.

Not surprising is the high degree of respect afforded to him by the Rwandans he meets and speaks with. The thousands of lives his small contingent of 300 peacekeepers were able to protect testified to Dallaire's success, even if his mission ultimately failed.

Although sometimes eclipsed by the film's focus on the commander, the thousands of Rwandans who lost their lives are never out of the focus for long. With numerous shots panning across fields of strewn dead, and the unsmiling looks of survivors still dealing with loss, the film conveys powerfully how needless this tragedy was.

But Shake Hands with the Devil is really the story of Dallaire's renewal and his ability to finally forgive himself.

It should be required viewing for anyone interested in finding out how this horror occurred in the first place, and for everyone else as well, as a reminder of how it could happen again.

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