When the SIFF programme came out, Roger Spottiswoode's film Shake Hands with the Devil was automatically the first to have gone into my list of must-watch films from the festival, as I thought and correctly so, that it's easily a companion piece to Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, both being films that will definitely provoke a reaction and bewilderment why people tend to turn a blind eye to problems from the African continent, and why nothing was done to prevent the genocide when the powers that be under the auspices of the UN could have intervened.
But as we learn through Romeo Dallaire's autobiographical book of the same name, things are not always as easy as it seems, and like any organization, the UN is bloated with bureaucracy made worse when politics and self-interests of nations take precedence over any humanitarian crisis, as we would have bore witness to world events and disasters time and time again. Played by Roy Dupuis who had done an excellent job in bringing out the pain and the tremendous frustration of General Dallaire's tour of duty as head of the UN peacekeeping troops in Rwanda when the massacre broke, we follow the events that unfold through the eyes on the other side of the fence, which in Hotel Rwanda you would have questioned why the UN was a toothless tiger, well, here are the answers.
It's incredibly frustrating as any working person will know and experience, how as dutiful employees, you have to follow the chain of command even though it runs against what you know from the ground, and probably against solid common sense. And this is definitely made worse in a uniformed organization, where it's an innate expectation that troops have to listen to orders, lest they be punished and court marshalled. A career solider, Canadian Dallaire had ambitions that he and his UN peacekeeping troops will have their work cut out at maintaining the peace between the fragile government in Rwanda and the rebels up north in the country, a truce most difficult to police given limited resources from supplies and manpower to ensure that duty is done.
As expected, credible intelligence get turned away from the suits occupying the ivory tower in New York, and not before long, civil war is at their doorsteps with the crash of an aeroplane in Rwanda carrying the President as well as important members of the government machinery. And in breakneck speed, the opportunity for lawlessness erupts, and a crisis is at hand. As Spottiswoode revealed in a post screening Q&A, each UN soldier were lightly armed had only 1 magazine of 11 rounds each, hardly enough to do anything, and clearly spelling out their intended involvement in being nothing but sheer observers. Rules of engagement get passed down, and to the Rwandan militia, it is clear that so long as they do not engage the UN troops, they can practically do what they want.
So how does one negotiate with barbarians who only understand rules if at the other end of a gun barrel, and not the rule of law? It's likely you share Dallaire's pain in having his hands tied behind his back, and having his every plea and request turned down, and having country ambassadors taking flight as soon as they can without an inkling of hope that they will return, or lend support in any way. Somehow it's as if the civilized world doesn't want to get its hands dirty with solving the issues in the African continent, so we should expect contemporary issues like piracy off the Somalian coast to continue, so long as there is no direct vested interest by anyone strong and courageous enough to champion a change. I guess that's the way that things have become with our humanity, with those able to help not doing so unless there's something substantial in the what's-in-it-for-me.
Dallaire's opening speech to his team at the beginning also touched on setting the rules, of understanding their role as being there to maintain the peace, but conceding that soldiers probably aren't the best party to be doing so. And we see how they struggle to keep their composure as they come up against, as the title already suggested, the devils themselves, where one has to grit one's teeth and bear with it, knowing any proactive action will require resource beyond current means, and then the necessity of sustaining any operation to clean up the mess. Dallaire has to depend on expert negotiating skills on both sides to try his best to keep some semblance of order even though chaos reigns all around, and being shot on actual locations, you can't help but to bear witness to a recreation of humanity's destruction and atrocities being unravelled in vivid terms, coming complete with disturbing images.
Spottiswoode doesn't mince his words through the film, and as explained by the director himself during the pre-screening introductory speech, he was told two things by Dallaire before the film got made, and that's not to make Dallaire a hero, and to tell the truth as it is. The opening inter-titles have squarely put where the root cause of the problem is, something that had sown the seeds for potential discord many years back. And again, it's innate human nature somehow, to want to have pissing competitions to know who's better than another, and who's in the majority and minority. The introductory slide is incredible informative with just a few lines, setting the tone for the atrocities to come, and talking about missed opportunities to set things right, the exasperation that follows instructions that don't make much sense to begin with.
Under very limited release and distribution, I hope more will get a chance to watch this on the big screen, especially those who have watched Hotel Rwanda and want to know more through a film, then this one will sit right up there to provide a perspective from an angle from an outsider, and an organization that for inexplicable reasons, decide to sit back and watch the unfortunate spectacle unfold.