In April 1994, at the Ecole Technique Officielle – a secondary school cum UN army base in Kigali, Rwanda – Belgian UN troops, school children, NGO workers and over 2,500 Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, took refuge against genocide. A baying Hutu militia danced menacingly with machetes outside the perimeter fence. After just five days the UN troops left the school, taking the whites with them and abandoning the Rwandans to their fate. Within hours almost all of the Rwandans were dead.
This true story from the 1994 Rwandan genocide is the gruelling subject of Shooting Dogs, a new film starring John Hurt, and co-produced and co-written by David Belton, a former BBC Newsnight correspondent in Rwanda.
Watching the film is a harrowing experience. It is filmed on the streets of Kigali, and on the actual site of the school compound where the massacre was carried out. The film has a haunting atmosphere. You cannot watch without feeling moved, especially when you discover at the end that many of the cast and crew were recruited from the local population, and are survivors of the genocide. And it is this which in many ways gives the film a greater sense of authenticity than the other very good recent film about the genocide, Hotel Rwanda.
This film is powerful, well acted and heartfelt. Yet, especially after the spate of films and TV programmes marking the tenth anniversary of the genocide last year, watching the film opened up a number of issues for me.
The first is to do with the representation of the scale and the horror of the violence. Shooting Dogs is utterly unsparing in its portrayal of the violence. It is unbearable to watch at times. And yet somehow I found it less shocking than some of the less graphic but totally devastating scenes in Hotel Rwanda.
The second is about the role of the white characters. The film-makers are clear that they wanted to tell the story through the eyes of the two main white characters – the world-weary priest (John Hurt) and the young, idealistic middle class student (Hugh Dancy).
The publicity surrounding the film, with its posters asking, “What would you do to make a difference?”, deliberately take on the conscience of a white, liberal middle class audience. A BBC journalist in the film declares that she was more shocked by the death of Bosnian Muslims – “I thought that could be my mum” – whereas in Rwanda it was just more dead Africans.
So despite the involvement of so many Rwandan survivors in the making of the film, I felt it didn’t quite do justice to their story. We didn’t really get to know the black characters, their lives, their families, how the relationship with their neighbours was transformed.
The third question is about the central message of the film (as it was in Hotel Rwanda) – that the West should have intervened. Indeed, the film’s title comes from the fact UN troops shot the dogs feeding off dead bodies to stop the spread of disease but could not fire on people to try to stop the slaughter. At the end of the film US spokeswoman Christine Shelley is shown under attack from a journalist for refusing to call it a genocide: “How many acts of genocide does it take to make a genocide?”
This is shown very graphically in the film. The UN troops that withdrew from the Ecole Technique Officielle were some of the 90 percent of UN troops who withdrew as the slaughter began. Just 270 UN soldiers remained during the height of the killing. But there is a problem too. The slaughter was the result not of too little Western involvement but too much – the product of decades of brutal intervention by imperialist forces, in particular Belgium, France and the US.
Hopefully the film will open up more debate about these issues – after all, Hotel Rwanda was a surprise box office success last year. However, I felt Shooting Dogs was less successful in getting across some of this history and explanation than Hotel Rwanda. Perhaps this is the job of a documentary rather than a mainstream fictional film.
Yet I felt the film’s emphasis on looking at the genocide as a question of individual morality of the white Western characters – should they have faced death to save Rwandans? – meant that too much of the wider political and economic reasons behind the slaughter were lost.
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