Genocide can occur anywhere. It is not an African phenomenon. We must have global vigilance. And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence. —Bill Clinton, 1998 A few years down the road, [President Clinton] will ask for forgiveness. He’ll make the promise of “never again.” But in terms of national interest, we did everything right. —dialogue from the film Sometimes in April Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire can still smell Rwanda. He wrote about this in his 2003 memoir, Shake Hands With the Devil, and it’s written on his face too — the unrelenting stench of the 800,000 bodies that rotted in mass graves, filled the streets of Kigali and dammed the Kagera River over 100 bloodstained days in 1994. Dallaire knows the smell because he was there, from August 1993 until September 1994, as the sometimes Head of Mission and full-time Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. What transpired, he would later write, was “a story of betrayal, failure, naiveté, hatred, genocide, war, inhumanity and evil” — one which Dallaire didn’t merely observe, but in which he played a leading role. He is, as many now know, one of modern history’s great and tragic witnesses, not just for what he saw, but for his accurate prediction of it and his ultimate inability to prevent it. He is, simply put, the boy who cried genocide. And it has taken much of the world the better part of a decade to respond to his call. “The 10th anniversary was a great catalyst. It’s funny how we’re so Cartesian,” Dallaire says, speaking in clipped language that carries the echo of the many man-made tragedies, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima, that have endured similar intervals before gaining due recognition. In other words, we think about the genocide, therefore it is. “In my opinion,” Dallaire continues, “these catastrophes — the human-led ones — are so shrouded in the political, in the residual ethnicities of the groups that have been affected and so on, that many of those who have been the targets themselves don’t speak much. They’re still living with it, wherever in the world they may be. And those who are still in the seat of power or close to it are also not particularly keen on this stuff getting out. You need a sort of purging area. I’ve estimated that it takes about five years — that’s when you’ve had enough change and enough key people are out of the decision-making processes that you can actually get them to talk.” It’s January of this year, halfway through the Sundance Film Festival, and I’m riding back with Dallaire to his hotel following a screening of Shake Hands With the Devil, a new documentary film based on Dallaire’s book about his year in Rwanda, and its aftermath. Catching up with Dallaire during his Sundance trip hasn’t been easy — wherever he goes, he’s mobbed by those who wish merely to proffer their sympathies and by others who pose the inevitable questions: How could this happen? And why didn’t I know about it when it was happening? Dallaire has heard it all before, and yet he’s happy to lend a compassionate ear and offer forthright opinions. It’s an approach that hasn’t always served him well. In the years immediately following his return from Africa, Dallaire’s frank criticisms of the international community’s failure to intervene, coupled with his testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, made him a pariah in certain government circles (culminating in 2000 with his forced exit from the Canadian army). But Dallaire has persevered, overcoming bouts of suicidal depression and posttraumatic stress disorder to emerge determined that, where matters of genocide are concerned, “never again” won’t apply only to Rwanda, but to the world entire. Directed by Peter Raymont, Shake Hands With the Devil is but one of a host of recent fiction and nonfiction films (including this week’s HBO premiere Sometimes in April) that grapple with Rwanda’s troubling legacy. First unveiled at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Raymont’s documentary relies on Dallaire’s own impassioned words to guide us methodically through the genocide, from its earliest warning signs (in the incendiary hate broadcasts of Radio RTML) to its brutal peak in the spring of 1994. And as he accompanies Dallaire on his 2004 return voyage to the Rwandan capital and his participation in the Days of Remembrance, Raymont frequently allows his camera to rest on excruciatingly unsentimental images of death and destruction — buildings and people that still bear the scars left by machetes, bullets, shrapnel blasts — until we are overcome with the sense of a hallowed place inexorably frozen in time.
Shake Hands With the Devil could hardly be more different in its approach than Terry George’s Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda, an unrepentantly Hollywoodized portrait of the approximately 1,200 fortunate Rwandans who found refuge within the walls of Kigali’s posh Hotel Des Milles Collines. Of course, that story is also true, and the film deserves credit, at least, for not telling its African story through a white interlocutor, à la Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom. But in its narrowly focused rush to inspire, Hotel Rwanda trivializes its protagonists by turning their plight into a succession of false climaxes and false hopes, a schematic game of will they or won’t they make it out alive. In Toronto, where it was possible to see both films virtually back to back, the disparity was particularly telling. Where Hotel Rwanda (notwithstanding Don Cheadle’s fine, honest performance) offers us a spoonful of sugar to make the genocide go down, Shake Hands With the Devil fills our nostrils with the same pungent aroma that still haunts Dallaire. Thanks to Hotel Rwanda and the slew of 10th-anniversary commemorations, we may have finally arrived at a moment when the terms “Hutu,” “Tutsi” and “interhamwe militia” are understood even by those who get their hard news from Entertainment Tonight. But, when the highest-profile film on the subject is also the softest, can it be that we are truly prepared to confront the specter of Rwanda in its full-scale horror? “You’ve got to fight revisionism,” Dallaire cautions. And a small but committed group of filmmakers around the world, including Raymont, are making movies in exactly that spirit — you just may have to look a little harder than usual to find their work. Featured in numerous festivals over the last year, two excellent, hourlong documentaries by French filmmaker Anne Aghion employ a compact style to pull us deep into the social fabric of post-genocide Rwandan village life. In the first, Gacaca: Living Together Again in Rwanda?, the question mark in the title hangs over the entire film as Aghion skeptically records the early days of Rwanda’s newly formed citizen-based justice tribunals. Set two years later, Aghion’s no less riveting In Rwanda We Say . . . The Family That Does Not Speak Dies hones in on one convicted prisoner’s return to his native village and how it sparks a complex debate on the subject of re-assimilation. The most apt comparison case for Hotel Rwanda, though, is HBO’s extraordinary Sometimes in April, another big-budget Hollywood-backed fiction feature, this one harrowing and wide-ranging in all the ways that George’s film seemed myopic and trite. Written and directed by Raoul Peck (who did an equally fine job at the helm of 2000’s politically charged biopic Lumumba), it tells the story of two Hutu brothers, one a Radio RTML disc jockey (Oris Erhuero) standing trial for the crimes he incited, the other a former soldier (Idris Elba) trying to uncover the fate of his Tutsi wife and three young children. Lucidly shifting time frames and locations — from 2004 to 1994, from Kigali to Washington — Sometimes in April possesses both the fluid texture of a dream and the agonizing inescapability of a nightmare, its simple, shattering power encapsulated by a series of onscreen titles: “Day 1, 8,000 people killed,” “Day 3, 3,000 people killed,” “Day 77, 716,000 people killed . . .” It is a chronicle of the many who sought shelter from the war but could not find it, who tried to reach the Hotel Des Milles Collines but were diverted and killed along the way. It is also a movie that asks how a country that birthed and bore witness to such terrors can ever manage to rebuild itself. What follows is a continuation of the conversation, published in the Weekly in conjunction with the opening of Hotel Rwanda in January, between Scott Foundas and Lt. Gen. Dallaire.
L.A. WEEKLY: To state the obvious, you’re not exactly a typical film-festival guest. What has it been like for you to be out on the road, sharing this film with audiences who may or may not be familiar with the story?
ROMÉO DALLAIRE: It’s one of the great surprises that I’ve found. It’s as if people are saying to themselves after seeing it, “Where was I 10 years ago, and how did that sort of pass under the rug?” What I’m finding is that not only are people interested in the film, but they seem keen on knowing more. The questions are pertinent — they’re not flaky. People have excellent questions on a subject that is not simple tribalism, but a very complex situation of power, money and ethnicity.
In the book and the film, you’re openly critical of England, France and America for their complicity, by way of inaction, in what occurred in Rwanda.
You must look at all the factors that dominated at the time. When the Americans pulled out of Mogadishu because of the 18 soldiers who were killed there, it made everyone else gun-shy. The U.N. and every country that could provide peacekeeping troops became frightened of having casualties in countries that don’t really count strategically. Their own survival as political structures were at risk. That dominated the scenario at the time, and, beyond that, there were 16 other missions going on that were far more significant to the Western world. Like Yugoslavia.
You use the word “strategic.” Do you think that there exists such a thing as pure humanism in the world, or is it always couched in this idea of strategy and domestic interests?
The middle powers have been so silent and so ineffective in offering options to the big powers, which are the ones far more conscious of the grander strategic scenario, because they can influence it a lot more. But just as the big powers put these conflicts into their “strategic” context — which is to say, low priority and high risk — the middle powers, using the instrument of the U.N. or the G8 or the E.U., have not really shown their hand in this era. They really haven’t. That’s where we’ve been deprived of a certain flexibility in terms of responding to humanitarian crises. I find it absolutely horrific that nations like mine [Canada] can produce some fine ideas and talk a great talk, but put absolutely no resources of any consequence behind them in order to implement them. We’ll complain about the situation in which we find ourselves because of some draconian decisions by big powers who looked at the problem from their strategic perspective, and yet have we haven’t offered those big powers other options.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Rwandan genocide is how much of a study it is in the power of media — from the local radio that helped to incite the violence to the international news outlets that largely turned a blind eye. Which begs the question: 10 years on, is the media appreciably more sensitive to those events unfolding in the world right now that could potentially be the next Rwandas?
I think that the capabilities of being there and getting the information out have improved, and the determination of the people in the field has also improved. They’re more aggressive and more searching. Where I think there has been absolutely no significant improvement is in the fact that the editors, the bureau chiefs, are still determining what’s significant and what’s not significant according to where they are and what they see. So I believe you will still have a scenario like Rwanda, where Tonya Harding kneecapping her friend and the O.J. Simpson trial take precedence over the genocide that’s happening at the same time. How is it that the Congo is barely touched upon, though millions have been slaughtered there? And what’s going on in Darfur. Yet we see such an incredible outpouring for natural disasters like the tsunami?
I also think the jury is very much out on embedding journalists with troops. I think journalists absolutely have to be everywhere and be able to report the whole story as best they can, but I don’t necessarily agree that it’s best for them to be embedded with the troops. I don’t see how that achieves the aim. Of course, reporters’ security has to be part of the equation, but they shouldn’t get themselves locked into something like that.
You mentioned that you’re now doing your own research into matters of international-conflict resolution.
What I’m trying to articulate is that we need a whole new conceptual base to conflict resolution. We’re fiddling with old methods of nation states and cold-war instruments to try to solve far more complex and far more demanding scenarios. As long as we keep toying with those antiquated notions of diplomacy, humanitarianism and neutrality, we’ll continue to miss the mark.
Sometimes in April premieres Saturday, March 19, on HBO, with many repeat broadcasts to follow. Though it is still seeking a U.S. theatrical distributor, Shake Hands With the Devil has just been released on DVD in Canada and can be purchased ( for about $25) through www.amazon.ca. Gacaca: Living Together Again in Rwanda? and In Rwanda We Say . . . The Family That Does Not Speak Dies are available for purchase through First Run/Icarus Films at www.frif.com.