SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: JOURNEY OF ROMEO DALLAIRE | FILM REVIEW

Walking from Pain towards Healing


Directed by Peter Raymont; Produced by Peter Raymont, Patrick Reed, Linda Lee Tracey; Starring Gary Caplan, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Romeo Dallaire, Mike Enright, Paul Kagame; Cinematography John Westheuser; Screenplay Romeo Dallaire, Brent Beardsley; Edited by Michele Hozer; Production Company White Pine Pictures, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Societe Radio-Canada; Release date 12 September 2004 (Canada), 11 March 2005 (United States); Country Canada; Language English, French; Box Office $ 68,249 (domestic)


To many, Rwanda is merely a tiny red dot on the map of the African continent. In 1994, when the bloody conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus struck, consuming nearly a million (at 800,000) lives within a hundred days, few Western countries were spurred into action to resolve the mass slaughter taking place. Within the West’s consciousness, the then-ongoing civil war in the former Yugoslavia was perceived with a higher degree of urgency as opposed to the bloodbath in Rwanda. Aside from being weighted with that perception, the conflict in Rwanda was viewed simply as a “tribalism” issue existing between black Africans as opposed to a “genuine” conflict amongst whites in Yugoslavia. While the United Nations’ peacekeeping forces occupied the demilitarised zone in Rwanda as UNAMIR – United Nations Assistance in Rwanda to assist the process of conflict resolution, they were severely weakened through the extensive limitations imposed in terms of authority and mandate, as well as logistical resources. Yet, in the throes of the ongoing conflict in Rwanda, the UNAMIR was forcibly pulled out.

The 45-minute long documentary Shake Hands With the Devil: Journey of Romeo Dallaire directed by Peter Raymont comprises of footages recorded on April 2004 (exactly a decade after the Rwanda genocide), featuring Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire – who was deployed as the commander for UNAMIR in Rwanda. The film was partly inspired by the experiences of Dallaire as a commander for UNAMIR, written by himself and Mayor Brent Beadsley in Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2004), which won the Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada in 2004. Another inspiration for this documentary is traced back to Raymont’s experience directing another documentary in Rwanda five years after the genocide has ended. Through a long and tedious process, Raymont finally persuaded Dallaire to collaborate on a film in Rwanda. Thus, Shake Hands With the Devil: Journey of Romeo Dallaire was borne as an emotional recollection from Dallaire (who was accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth) to Rwanda as he recounted the places and events that accompany the genocide which continue to haunt him for years to come. 

According to the director, Peter Raymont, the shooting process for Shake Hands With the Devil was carried out in Rwanda on April 2004, lasting for almost two weeks. The film was funded by several institutions (CBC, Rogers Documentary Fund, Canadian TV Fund) and were produced with the help of a talented pool of individuals (cameraman John Westheuser; sound designer Ao Loo and PM Patrick Reed; interpreter Jean-Thierry Nkulikiyumukiza along with the photographer Peter Bregg). After Raymont had successfully finished collecting several footages from Rwanda, he returned to Canada and began to complete the film with interviews, featuring: Brent Beardsley and Phil Lancaster (military aides to Dallaire in Rwanda); Gerald Kaplan (an author); Stephen Lewis (member of the UN Special Envoy); Michael Enright (CBC); Elizabeth Dallaire (Dallaire’s wife) as well as four hours’ worth of narration from Romeo Dallaire himself. As such, Shake Hands With the Devil serves to document Dallaire’s return journey to Rwanda and the brutal genocide in Rwanda chronologically.

The film opens with a mildewed still of a Rwandan child, symbolising the division tearing Rwanda apart through ethnic conflict, followed by Romeo Dallaire’s return flight to Rwanda. This return journey is clearly an ordeal for Dallaire, noting that he had attempted suicide in the past from suffering the intolerable pain witnessing the brutality in Rwanda first-hand. Not surprisingly, a film critic Geoff Pevere writing for Toronto Star had remarked, “This film is part therapeutic personal exorcism and part passionate humanitarian indictment. Raymont’s documentary uses lingering trauma of one man as a way of opening on larger questions of global indifference and responsibility.” 

Through Michele Hozer’s expert execution of the parallel editing technique, the audience is able to see places in Rwanda that Dallaire had visited both in its former and present conditions. In the past, these places had served as killing fields for innocent bodies to pile on – men, women and children alike. It is truly horrifying to note that numerous civilians were slaughtered in schools and churches where many had sought refuge from the brutal genocide occurring. While visiting a building which had transformed into a repository for skulls, Dallaire was stunned into silence as he was reminded of a painful memory. The audience is only met with silence and a close-up of skulls lined up neatly in a row, at a glance reminiscent of Pol Pot’s mass slaughter in Cambodia. From the skulls alone, the audience can identify how each of the individuals were murdered. Raymont manipulated lighting techniques, resulting in naturally contemplative moments from Dallaire with an equally gripping reality.

Perhaps, there is a place, located at the peak of a mountainous region, where Dallaire managed to seek peace. In his return visit to Rwanda, he had enthusiastically showed the place to his wife, Elizabeth. He referred to it as his secret place, akin to his childhood hidden refuge, where he could contemplate and unwind for a little while. This was the remaining oasis when every other expanse of land in Rwanda had become a killing field. Even UN-protected places, through UNAMIR, were under the continuous threat of attack by the militants who carried out the slaughter. In his personal recount, Dallaire had continuously requested the larger UN base through their Security Council, for more extensive mandate that would have allowed him and his peacekeeping forces to prevent the expansion of the genocide throughout Rwanda. Unfortunately, the UN had viewed such response to fall under the category of meddling in a faraway nation’s “domestic affairs”. This was in spite of common knowledge that the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide had been brought forth and agreed upon, along with a ratification through resolution number 260 (III) UN General Assembly on December 9th, 1948 and affirmed on January 12th, 1951, that genocide (in times of peace and war) constitutes a crime under international law and that perpetrator(s) would be tried in the International Court of Justice. A difficult task that the Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire had to accomplish was to negotiate with the parties responsible for inciting the genocide. Hence, the documentary was titled as Shake Hands With the Devil – where the term devil, according to Dallaire, refers to those who inhabit a human façade while possessing the devilish trait of inhumanity to slaughter others in the name of ethnic cleansing. 

Shake Hands With the Devil is not a documentary aimed at painting a heroic picture of Dallaire as a member of a peacekeeping force in Rwanda.  In fact, what the audiences witness on screen is the opposite: Dallaire’s limitations as the commander of a UN peacekeeping force are instead brought to the fore. Guilt and frank admission in failing to accomplish a conflict resolution task in Rwanda were delivered by Dallaire in French as a speech to the National University of Rwanda during the commemoration of the genocide. He delivered a scathing critique towards the blatant neglect Western countries had displayed to the genocide taking place in Rwanda only because the Rwandans were dark-skinned and not European (or Western). The director, Raymont, interestingly professes that “I felt ashamed to say this to you, that like many others, I had ‘neglected’ this genocide in Rwanda. I was only vaguely aware of the media coverage regarding ethnic conflict that occurred in the centre of the African continent. Yet, every night, throughout the hundred-day period (April-July 1994), the OJ Simpson incident and Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan debacle had dominated the news.” In 1998, the deep guilt and failure of the UN, including the United States in preventing the genocide in Rwanda was admitted by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and President Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, the threats from the Belgian diplomat directed to Dallaire during one of the conferences held in Rwanda regarding the genocide were shown on the film. According to the diplomat, Dallaire was reluctant to meet the wife of a Belgian soldier who died on duty in Rwanda. However, Dallaire himself had felt that he had never restricted her access to meet him and he also felt, without dismissing the death of the Belgian soldier, that the brutality the Rwandans had experienced had caused him to feel helpless in preventing his death. Around 10 members of the Belgian military, who were guarding moderate Hutu politicians, were caught and murdered by a group of militant Hutus, leading to Belgium withdrawing its troops from UNAMIR.

It must be noted that despite the existence of several films (in the form of docudramas) regarding the genocide in Rwanda, such as Hotel Rwanda (2004) directed by Terry George and Sometimes in April (2005) directed by Raoul Peck, Shake Hands with the Devil remains unique. As a documentary film, it serves as part of the healing process for the trauma that continues to haunt Romeo Dallaire, rather than merely a nostalgic memory. As we neared towards the end of the film, Dallaire was able to momentarily forget his trauma and suffering during a reunion with his colleagues who had been deployed in Rwanda together. This was the only moment in the film where Dallaire’s smile and happy face are shown whereas in contrast, his glum face is seen throughout the film filled with sadness. 

If we were to consider Indonesian documentaries, Shake Hands with the Devil is perhaps similar in several aspects to the film Puisi Tak Terkuburkan (Unconcealed Poem, 2000) directed by Garin Nugroho. In Nugroho’s film, we witness the difficult process the Didong Aceh poet, Ibrahim Kadir, underwent in recounting the mass killings of 1965. The mass killings that followed the 30th September Movement (Gerakan 30 September/ G30S) were almost similarly brutal and cruel to that of the Rwandan genocide. However, there is no concerted effort on the Indonesian filmmakers’ part presently to address the mass killings. As quoted by film director Lexy Rambadetta “The Holocaust… was able to produce hundreds of films, thus, there should be as much films which dealt with the tragedy of 1965 or Munir’s death” (Tempo, p.5-11 December 2005). Indeed, there were only Garin Nugroho’s Puisi Tak Terkuburkan (and Lexy Rambadetta’s Mass Grave (2001) that raised the cruelty during the 1965 event. The film Kado Untuk Ibu (Present for Mother, 2004) produced by Syarikat Indonesia activists had also attempted to immortalise the memory of Gerwani (Indonesian leftist women movement) members and those imprisoned during the New Order without a fair and impartial process.

At the end of the day, Shake Hands with the Devil reminds us the cruelty posed towards humanity, as faced in Rwanda, and should remain the human conscience. As humbly quoted by the director Peter Raymont, “This is a story about someone who cares, who believed that we are the guardians to our brethren, who served his life to save tens to thousands lives, who understand the value of human life in Rwanda, as well as in other parts of the world.” Until today, similar brutality continues to coexist in other parts of the world, including Indonesia. Documentary films can perhaps preserve a reminder into us lest we repeat history, including amplifying the victims’ voices and revealing the hidden depths of human cruelty. Ultimately, films not only serve to channel healing to free the subject who had experienced suffering: they also enable them to walk away from pain towards healing. 

Originally written in Bahasa Indonesia/ Translated by Alma Delia Sukma

Image source: cduniverse.com

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