by Tony Chankar
Starring Roy Dupuis, Deborah Kara Unger, James Gallanders, and Michael Mongeau. Written by Roméo Dallaire (book) and Michael Donovan. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode.
The film commences in 2004, as Dallaire returns to Rwanda for the first time to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 100-day massacre during which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by militant Hutus. Everyone familiar with the horror knows Dallaire was not to be blamed, that he simply didn't have the resources to stop it - everyone except Dallaire himself. He remains haunted and horrified by what occurred a decade ago, frustrated with the U.N. and the world for not stepping in to help him, disappointed in himself for not being able to do more.
Roméo Dallaire is not the kind of guy who preens whenever he recalls that he saved thousands of lives during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He is, rather, the sort of fellow whose memories of the hundreds of thousands he couldn't rescue pushed him to the brink of suicide. Indeed, it is the breadth of his conscience and the depth of his compassion that make him one of the moral beacons of our time. Dallaire's mission wasn't a total loss – his 450 peacekeepers saved some 32,000 lives – but it seems miniscule set against the greater atrocity. And that's a reality that haunts him to this day.
If you think Hotel Rwanda is intense and upsetting, prepare yourself for something infinitely more disturbing, as Shake Hands With the Devil inserts you right into the middle of it, putting you in the shoes of a tormented person directly responsible – yet unable to act – for protecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the path of long-standing hatred that dwarfed in magnitude the ethnic cleansing of the former Yugoslavia and rivalled the horrors of the Holocaust.
This is an honest film that tosses aside the stereotypes of military leaders that get repeated play in the movies and instead shows us the humanity of a man trying to do the right thing who is stymied by the system within which he works. Roy Dupuis’ understated performance as Dallaire is right on the mark, resisting the temptation to make melodrama of this intense story, and instead portraying Dallaire for what he was – a person fighting hard to do the right thing who is absolutely devastated by his failure to protect the innocent and stop this genocide, which reportedly took the lives of about a million people.
The film also makes it very clear that this was a tragedy that didn't need to happen. France, Belgium and especially the United States could have intervened at any time, when what they actually did was hamstring the UN force with ever more impossible rules of engagement. Its approach is sane, sober, and intelligent, and it doesn't shy away from the gaping horrors of machete and mortar wounds, either.
Beautifully filmed, brutally frank, and forceful in its political message – in support of the sort of active peacekeeping that passed into history in the post-September 11 era – Shake hands With the Devil is a powerful film that’s not to be missed.(4 out of 5 stars)