“Do you want to continue living?” a superior asks of United Nations commander Roméo Dallaire (Roy Dupuis) as Shake Hands with the Devil opens in bright blue-washed flash forward. It’s a puzzling inquiry from a bureaucracy, though considering the rampant genetic cleansing Dallaire has witnessed in Rwanda, it’s a forceful reminder of the powerful influence he maintains over his own destiny—an influence that 800,000 Tutsi, and Hutu moderates, weren’t fortunate enough to have. We, with our constitutionally protected right to live, feel similarly complicit (especially given the Western world’s refusal to intervene in the genocide) until we realize that the scene, played out between Dallaire and skeptical UN officials and interspersed throughout the film, isn’t meant to be a polemical rumination on mortal agency, but a tetchy reenactment of hierarchical nose-rubbing. And Dallaire’s story, about the UN’s failed intervention during the inter-tribal conflict in Rwanda, isn’t an eyewitness account of human atrocity, but a hot-blooded condemnation of political bungling.
This approach reasonably exposes and vents anger toward a myriad of real-life parties made guilty by their inaction. Humanitarian administrators Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh (John Sibi-Okumu) and Boutros Boutros-Ghali (David Calderisi) in particular come off uncompassionate rather than defensibly muddled by red tape, a criticism preserved from Dallaire’s source memoir; when they aren’t weaseling out of communication with UNAIR forces, they’re insisting that “we cannot take the offense, even to protect the slaughter of the innocent.” But the film’s persistent interloper’s perspective also allows the unthinkable events behind the criminal passivity to be incompetently dramatized, when addressed at all: We’re so glued to Dallaire’s gaze that the genocide feels like a peripheral occurrence. The only cadavers lingered on in the first act aren’t Tutsis, but Belgian soldiers, stacked in an unceremonious, if message-sending, pile by the national militia. And when the Plutonian reality of the massacre is finally, fleetingly rendered as an orgy of machete’d limbs, corpse mountains, and slippery blood puddles, the film insists on having a CNN reporter simultaneously capture the affair with a camcorder; the violence we’re seeing, in other words, is not only being filtered through director Roger Spottiswoode’s camera, but through the implied lens of nightly news.
Most on-screen representation of genocide cleverly distances us from the numbing, horrific brunt with storytelling chicanery and sympathetic protagonists that personify the psychological effects of brutality rather than its visceral experience. Shake Hands with the Devil‘s top-down viewpoint protects us from the sinewy, sickening details while assigning crucial blame, but in doing so it’s just as dismissive of the doomed Rwandans as the UN. We learn of the genocide’s progression mostly behind closed doors, where Dallaire and a group of UNAIR officials debate ineffectually with words and commands over slaughters that are occurring with rusty swords and sexual violations only a few miles away. (Aside from a few tense moments between Hutu army men and Belgian peacekeepers, our awareness of the conflict is limited to shifts in conversational tone—e.g., “A genocide is about to happen,” “A genocide is occurring,” and “How many people can we save before we evacuate?”). It’s as if the Greek chorus has confused itself with the tragic hero and usurped the stage in a fusillade of narrative rhetoric; even the cinematography’s color scheme appears brown-bleached to match the beige camouflage of Dallaire and his men.
Dallaire surveys the carnage one last time after volunteering to be relieved of duty, and thin, manly tears betray his otherwise stoic expression. He then remarks at how the pervasiveness of senseless death has penetrated his “protective screen,” an emotional shield he can usually deploy at will while in combat. His visible sorrow is meant to be an ominous, if arbitrary, gauge of the Rwandan atrocities—proof that genocide is much more than simply the obligatory inferno of wartime ethics. But this denouement inadvertently reveals the Dallaire character as our own “protective screen,” a device through which we observe shadows and reflections of events from which we choose to avert our eyes. Just as Dallaire has the opportunity to choose life in a manner that nearly a million Hutu did not, we, too, are allowed to “witness” Rwanda at a casual distance—by marveling at, finally, how the systematic murder and rape of hundreds of thousands of civilians reduced a hardened army man to a weeping jag. What ultimately characterizes Shake Hands with the Devil is its cumbersome sense of contrition, but the film seems only foggily aware of what its apologizing for.