'Shake Hands,' Struggle On: A Genocide Revisited

Roy Dupuis and James Gallanders

Tough Call: Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, (Roy Dupuis, left) and Maj. Brent Beardsley (James Gallanders) struggle to protect innocent lives and negotiate peace during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, striving all the while to maintain the neutrality required of U.N. peacekeepers. Regent Releasing hide caption

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Shake Hands With The Devil

  • Director: Roger Spottiswoode
  • Genre: Docudrama
  • Running Time: 112 minutes

Not rated: Violence, corpses, profanity.

With: Roy Dupuis, Deborah Kara Unger, James Gallanders, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Odile Katesi Gakire

In English and French with English subtitles

French-Canadian Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who commanded U.N. peacekeeping troops during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, didn't see his own family butchered or his own country awash in the blood of innocents. But the tribal slaughter has clearly been the defining event of his life. That was evident from Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire, a 2004 documentary that observed Dallaire's return trip to postwar Rwanda. It's even more obvious from Shake Hands with the Devil, a docudrama based on the general's memoir.

Hollywood has already told a version of this story, Hotel Rwanda, focusing on the heroic Paul Rusesabagina. But Dallaire (Roy Dupuis in the role Nick Nolte played in the earlier movie) is a more central figure here, despite being an outsider in Rwanda. He met regularly with leaders of the government, the Tutsi insurgency and the Hutu militia. (Those last are the "devils," whose hands Dallaire was reluctant to shake.) He also was in communication with the U.N., which ordered him not to intervene in the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and ultimately commanded him to withdraw. (He refused.)

Filmed in the actual locations where the events transpired, Shake Hands begins with Dallaire's first trip through the verdant mountains and valleys of the former Belgian colony.

"Nobody told me how damn beautiful it was going to be," the general muses. Or how ugly it was going to become.

The picturesque vistas are soon replaced by horrific sights familiar from previous dramas and documentaries about Rwanda's meltdown: the church where hundreds were slaughtered after seeking sanctuary, the hospital where dead Belgian soldiers were piled up as a taunt to their blue-bereted colleagues, the stadium where U.N. troops managed to protect thousands of refugees, and Rusesabagina's Hotel des Mille Collines, another haven for those marked for death. By the time Tutsi rebel leader Paul Kagame ends the carnage by leading his troops into Kigali, Rwanda's capital, somewhere in the vicinity of a million people are dead. (This film goes very easy on Kagame, whose benevolence is not universally acclaimed.)

Roy Dupuis and Akin Omotoso i i

Dallaire speaks to Tutsi rebel leader Paul Kagame, played by Akin Omotoso. Regent Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Regent Releasing
Roy Dupuis and Akin Omotoso

Dallaire speaks to Tutsi rebel leader Paul Kagame, played by Akin Omotoso.

Regent Releasing

A 2007 movie that's now getting a limited U.S. release three years after its Canadian debut, Shake Hands with the Devil is a workmanlike docudrama that takes most of its power from the story it tells — and the outrage it expresses. Director Roger Spottiswoode, a Hollywood veteran of no characteristic style, avoids flashy techniques and explicit violence; Hutu militiamen swing their machetes, but the blows' impacts aren't really seen. Only the corpses — scattered, piled, floating down streams — testify fully to the horror.

Screenwriter Michael Donovan may have modeled the film's reticence on Dallaire's own. The story is framed by his postwar attempts to erase the Rwandan experience from his mind through psychoanalysis, liquor and other unsuccessful gambits. These scenes are the movie's least successful, but Dupuis keeps his dignity even when drooling on a park bench. And when he's striding through the chaos, the actor seems every bit the sort of man who could calmly announce "I'm Dallaire" to a grenade-toting fanatic who's just promised to kill the general if he ever meets him.

Back in Canada, Dallaire tells a psychiatrist that he remembers Rwanda in flashbacks that are "not like memories at all." Shake Hands with the Devil captures something of that sensation; it's a depiction of events that are too painful to remember, too essential to forget.

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