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I have long said that Roy Dupuis is the French Canadian version of Colm Feore. When you have a big Canadian icon that you want to immortalize on film or TV, you pick one or the other. Anglophone icon? Feore. (Pierre Trudeau, Glenn Gould.) A Francophone icon? Dupuis. (Maurice Richard, Romeo Dallaire.) And so there was no question in my mind when I heard that Shake Hands With The Devil was going to be made into a feature film as to who would play Dallaire. It was Dupuis, or the film would not have been made. By the way, in order to avoid those “do your research” and “get your facts straight” emails, I would like to state right now that I am indeed aware that Pierre Trudeau was a Francophone. But that movie was mostly English.
Dallaire’s book was a sensation in Canada when it came out. A tragic and devastating look at the genocide in Rwanda. It was later made into a documentary film, which helped make people aware of the horror a little more, and now this movie, which might help even a little more. The thing that made me saddest in watching this film was the fact that it came out so many years after the genocide was over. Same for the documentary and the book. Now, it’s not like Dallaire could have written his book while things were going on. But it’s sad to think that so many people pay attention now, and watch other films like Hotel Rwanda, and feel sad and mourn the tragedy and get enraged over things like “why didn’t somebody do something”. And yet, when we see those things on TV, on the news, in the papers, and we are aware it is taking place RIGHT NOW, we don’t do much. As Joaquin Phoenix says in Hotel Rwanda, we go back to our TV dinners and turn on the hockey game when the news is over.
Part of this, I feel, is because of the nature of the media. When genocide is taking place in Darfur, in Africa, way across the sea, it is treated as simply a news story. A two-minute piece on the horrors in Darfur gets as much importance as a two-minute piece on the possibility of the defeat of the budget in the House of Commons. Very often, it gets less. A school shooting is big news, front page on every paper, lead story in every newscast. That is a tragedy that hits close to home. But more people died in thirty seconds during the genocide in Rwanda than have died in all school shootings in North America combined. It doesn’t affect us. It is reported as “here’s what’s going on in a country that isn’t ours”, and is followed up with “a small town in France has outlawed public toilets!” and we forget all about it. Toilets! That’s hilarious! I think it’s safe to say that most of us know (myself included) know more about Columbine and Dawson College and Virginia Tech than we do about Darfur. Really, this isn’t exactly the fault of the media. This is really the way we want to be fed our news, and they are just complying with the wishes of the general population – you wouldn’t get many ratings if you showed machete massacres every night.
And so we get Shake Hands With the Devil, a movie that has been made only when it could be made, many years after the fact. And hopefully, it makes people aware that such things are still going on, or curious enough to find out. (Steven Spielberg has just pulled out of the Olympics in Beijing to protest China, feeling that they haven’t done enough to stop the genocide in Darfur.) And the movie is pretty good, as a movie. Dupuis is steely and tough as Dallaire, a man who carries himself with the utmost dignity and commands respect as a lifelong soldier. His supporting cast is for the most part excellent. Having just finished the book, I recognized most of the characters being protrayed just as I had imagined them. Especially James Gallanders as Major Brent Beardsley, who has a few tough scenes. This is a fascinating story, and that alone makes the movie worth watching.
But there is a little problem with the movie, looking at it solely in the context of a movie. It is a dramatization of real events, but somehow, it doesn’t feel dramatized enough. There are scenes taken directly from the book – a scene where Beardsley is confronted by a mob of machete-weilding Interahmwe, as he tries to get a wounded woman to safety, and he punches the man who stands in his way. In the book, the scene is tense, dramatic and poignant. In the film, it’s tough to tell what you’re seeing. Is that guy standing in his way…or not…or OK it’s over. Another scene where Dallaire and Beardsley are blockaded from a portion of the city and must get out of the car and walk through the barricade, as weapons are cocked and the bad guys say they will shoot. Again, in the book, this scene made me pretty nervous. In the movie, it is treated as a matter of course.
Doc hated Gone Baby Gone because he had read the book first, and he couldn’t reconcile what he saw on the screen with what he had imagined in his head when reading. I had the same problem with Shake Hands With the Devil, seeing scenes that were so familiar to me and yet not feeling their poignancy as much as I had while reading. But at the same time, I’m not sure anyone would understand this movie without having read the book first. There are so many factions and institutions – the RPF, the RGF, the Interahmwe, the president, prime minister, interim government, and countless others. Each with their own politics, their own attitudes, their own enemies and their own clandestine secrets. It is such a complicated picture that the movie can’t hope for a moment to make sense of it all in less than two hours. In the end, this film should be watched, and is certainly good, but if you had to make a choice, read the book.