There is no shortage of harrowing war footage in the Rwandan genocide documentary Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of RomÃo Dallaire. Excruciating images of violence and atrocity contend with equally brutal international neglect. And yet Dallaire, the general of the tiny United Nations force sent to quell the 1994 massacre, keeps marveling at the beauty of the Rwandan landscape. At one point, the graying Canadian soldier stands childlike on a tree stump, the added foot somehow offering a better view of the lush, fog-cloaked mountains.
That better view is the heart of this award-winning film, and of Dallaire. Commanding just a few hundred troops, Dallaire kept at his post long after it was clear the world would neither stop the violence in Rwanda nor offer meaningful aid. After all, O.J. Simpson was on trial. Meanwhile, as mortars rained for months on his U.N. command post, Dallaire's stymied leadership saved thousands of lives.
In the documentary, Canadian director Peter Raymont follows the guilt-ridden Dallaire and his wife for a trip back to Rwanda on the 10th anniversary of the massacres. The result is an uneven but powerfully affecting film, which barely touches on the motives behind the disaster, looking instead at the world community's craven failure to help. Through it all, Raymont keeps the narrative ' and the camera ' closely focused on Dallaire.
MichÃle Hozer's editing is precise: News footage of European soldiers coldly pushing children aside at the airport as they evacuate non-Africans is folded into Dallaire's recent return to that same airstrip, which in turn is folded into separate interviews with journalists and foreign-policy experts. When the 2004 Dallaire describes his disgust at that event over footage of the 1994 Dellaire crying, well, you are too.
But no matter how heroic Dallaire is, his story is dwarfed by the geopolitics behind genocide. The images of desiccated bodies and piled skulls are haunting; you are still coping with them long after Raymont has moved on. And while the once-suicidal Dallaire's recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder is admirable, the recoveries of the few Rwandan survivors we meet trump all.
But Dallaire is an intriguing figure and worthy of the film's affection. Even as he loses faith in the world, his spiritual faith grows. Ten years later, Dallaire finds paradise in the rebirth of both the country and its people. Despite plentiful new geopolitical frustrations, it doesn't take a tree stump to see why.