To revisit events such as wars where millions might have perished, with numbing statistics that defy comprehension, artists often chose a single strand through which the horror can be studied in miniature. In Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, Canadian documentarian Peter Raymont depicts one man's involvement in the Rwandan civil war of 1994. His film is a powerful personal portrait of the war's psychic cost wrought upon one survivor, as well as a stinging indictment of the world's neglect of the Rwandan crisis.
In the spring of 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were killed in just 100 days. (Here, we fretted over the fate of O.J. Simpson, who at most might have murdered two people.) On the ground in Rwanda was Gen. Roméo Dallaire, a French Canadian commanding a miniscule U.N. peacekeeping force of fewer than 300 troops. Dallaire was virtually helpless to act as chaos reigned, and by July, he had returned to Canada following a nervous collapse.
Raymont's simply produced film comprises contemporary interviews and footage from 1994 as well as Dallaire's return journey to Rwanda in 2004. As the film's subtitle implies, the film illustrates the deeply personal journey of one man trying to reconcile his own demons by returning to meet those ghosts on their home turf. Dallaire still views his time in Rwanda as a failure: He saved a few lives, but watched as hundreds of thousands more died. He is plagued by what-ifs; he revisits tiny moments in history where he feels that with outside cooperation the slaughter might have been circumvented.
Meeting with other survivors, Dallaire dismisses the label "hero," and perhaps it's not the precise term. Yet how do you take measure of an individual who at great personal cost stood for humanity where only madness reigned, a man who internalized a genocide even as the rest of the world ignored it?
Today Dallaire, free of his square-shouldered military gear and sporting a bushy salt-and-pepper moustache, reads as a totem for Western Everyman. As he admittedly still suffers from post-traumatic shock, Dallaire's eyes remain haunted; he recalls events with clarity, sensitivity and even a bit of gallows humor, but his voice seems barely able to conceal shrieks of outrage and grief. We should listen closely though: Dallaire paid the price for our sins -- our neglect and refusal to even care, much less intervene. In English, and French with subtitles.