Film Review by Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC
Director of Continuing Medical Education and
Professional Development, Dept of Psychiatry, UBC
The film Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire is indeed very much the personal journey of Canadian Lt. General Roméo Dallaire. In 1994, 800,000 Rwandan men, women and children, mostly Tutsis, were brutally murdered by vengeful Hutus in a chaotic 100 days of civil war and genocide. Dallaire was the UN Force Commander in Rwanda during that time. Since then, he has been haunted by those events and by what he views as his own, and humanity’s, failure to stop the killings. The personal toil has been enormous and very public – suicide attempts, depression, alcohol abuse, and the almost unbearable haunting recollections that occur with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In 2004, Dallaire flew back to Rwanda to confront his personal hell. Director Peter Raymont was there to record the trip and the resulting film is a skillfully edited tapestry that documents Dallaire’s psychologically agonizing return with brutal archival video footage shot by various war correspondents during the genocide. The latter material is horrific and includes bloated bodies of the dead, the haunting eyes of the about to die and the shocking machete attacks on the helpless.
Why didn’t such graphic images arouse the world at the time of the genocide? Dallaire argues, as do others interviewed in the film, including an articulate Stephen Lewis, that racist and capitalistic world powers were indifferent to Africans killing Africans in a country with next to no resources. If possible, there was even a more humiliating contributing factor than international apathy – the world’s then mesmerized fascination with the televised O.J. Simpson trial. Dallaire’s anger remains palpable. His indictments include the United Nations – inept and inflexible, France – who he blamed for training the Rwandese Government Force and protecting the genocidaires, Belgium – who initially supplied Dallaire’s mission with his best combat troops – only to abruptly recall them, and Rwanda’s Roman Catholic Church – whom he blames for not condemning the brewing hatred and killings. Dallaire remains particularly bitter with the Belgians who abandoned the UN mission following the deaths of 10 of their contingent. But Dallaire is no less harsh upon himself for failing to obtain the help that the ill-equipped, illprepared and desperately undermanned mission required.
Shake Hands with the Devil is a remarkable film. It’s hard to imagine a more effective depiction of the devastating distress associated with chronic PTSD or the paralyzing intrusive recollections of triggering traumatic events that occur with this disorder – so effectively illustrated by the integrated archival material. We also see Dallaire’s fight to overcome his inclination to avoid traumaassociated situations that so typifies the PTSD sufferer. But, more importantly than its clinical depiction of an increasingly common psychiatric disorder, the film works on two additional levels.
Although he denies the perception, there’s no question Dallaire is an inspiring hero. Not because of traditional military accomplishments, but because of his open and heart-wrenching attempts to deal with the circumstances ‘thrust upon him’. Here is a soldier who had the courage to stay a devastating course but who desperately sought to find a political will to stop the killings. And here is a man who just as courageously has shared his story of subsequent torment and self-doubt. Because of his own candor in discussing and addressing his emotional difficulties, others in the military are now coming forward to receive the psychological help they require and deserve.
Shake Hands with the Devil is also a call to arms. It’s difficult not to share Dallaire’s moral indignation with ‘the failure of humanity in Rwanda’. It’s also hard not to share his concern that other genocides in Africa and elsewhere could easily occur; indeed are occurring. What were you doing in the spring of 1994? One of the archival clips in Shake Hands with the Devil depicts President Clinton’s 1998 visit to Rwanda when he tells its citizens he “did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” At first, this statement seems reasonable; indeed it’s a sentiment many might convey (including myself) if called upon to account for their own previous indifference to the Rwandan catastrophe. But Stephen Lewis angrily dismisses Clinton’s attenuated apology – “I think Clinton knew exactly what was going on in Rwanda …he just didn’t take it seriously enough. And all this caterwauling about ‘if only I had known’. Spare me. He knew.” And so did the rest of the world – or should have.
Shake Hands with the Devil is that rare film that leaves you morally outraged and ashamed, hopefully enough to move all of us beyond the lip service that can dominate humanity’s inhuman response to an endangered people’s call for help.