Tonight there was a touching and powerful feature on CBC. The title is Shake Hands With The Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire ~ a shortened version of the documentary film by the same title. Shake Hands With The Devil follows retired Canadian Forces General Roméo Dallaire’s emotional return to Rwanda, where in 1994, he had served as head of the United Nations peacekeeping forces and witnessed the slaughter of almost a million Tutsis. In the movie Hotel Rwanda, General Roméo Dallaire character was played by Nick Nolte.
Long after this program ended I can still recall Dallaire desperation during his post as head of the UN peacekeeping forces. He defied UN orders to withdraw from Rwanda. Without the authority, manpower, or equipment to stop the slaughter, he saved the lives he could but nearly lost his sanity.
I think one of the most touching scene is when Dallaire (on his journey back to Rwanda) has the chance to speak to Rwandans in a university stadium ~ he apologized to them for failing to keep the genocide from happening, and told them the bitter truth… that the powerful Western countries were not interested to help them and they just stood there when the genocide happened… and the reason was simple, it’s mostly because it happened in the middle of Africa with their black people… not an immediate security or economic threat to the Western countries. A bitter but sad truth.
I quote his words that I found very forceful:
“It took nearly two years to all of a sudden not being able to cope; not being able to hide it; not being able to forget it or to put it in, keep it in a drawer. I became suicidal because there was no other solution. You couldn’t live with the pain and the sounds and the smell and the sights. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stand the loudness of silence.”
Following are coverages from CBC and other online resources on this documentary film, the challenge to make genocide-type films, the real-account trauma of peacekeeping forces, the insight of Rwanda and her journey to forgive and reconcile with her brutal past.
Sundance Film Festival
Shake Hands With The Devil is a 91-minute film, the only full-length Canadian movie selected for Sundance Film Festival this year, beat about three dozen other documentaries that screened at the festival for the prize of the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award. In total, more than 1,000 documentaries from around the world had vied for entry into the annual celebration of independent film.
Toronto-based filmmaker Peter Raymont told the Canadian Press, “It’s fantastic and it’s a great honour. It’s important in that this will help bring the film to more people, to help keep the [issue of] genocide alive and to keep it from happening again.”
One highlight of Raymont’s Sundance experience was a personal visit from actor and director Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute took over the former Utah/United States Film Festival in the mid-1980s.
Redford, who doesn’t usually single out festival entries, came to an early screening of Shake Hands With The Devil, introduced the film and even stayed for a question-and-answer period afterward.
According to Raymont, the veteran actor told the audience that this type of film is “why Sundance was created in the first place. … It’s an independent film. It’s about an important human rights justice issue.”
Raymont said Redford then welcomed Dallaire as “a great humanitarian.”
“[Redford] came partly because I think he admires Gen. Dallaire,” Raymont said. “They sort of expressed their admiration for each other.”
Indepth with Roméo Dallaire
Reporter: Carol Off ~ Producer: Anita Mielewczyik
The ordinary demands of life are now a comfort to retired general Roméo Dallaire.
His children, Catherine and Guy, look for chances to spend time with their father, such as the annual Québec ritual of assembling the winter garage. They missed a lot during his years as a soldier and again during his painful recovery. When nothing gave comfort. When his heart and mind were thousands of kilometres away in another land.
Dallaire’s searing memory of his time in that other land is now a book. Shake Hands With the Devil – The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.
He describes the machete-wielding government-sponsored forces who went on a killing spree in 1994 and murdered 800,000 people in 100 days. It’s a damning indictment of world leaders and UN bureaucrats who failed to stop the genocide. Even to write the story was painful.
“I actually think it’s having relived that year in Rwanda and the four months of the genocide through writing the book. I mean, I actually had to relive it. You can’t write it unless you relive it,” Dallaire says.
After Rwanda, Dallaire blamed himself for everything. He sank deep into despair. He attempted suicide. Three years ago he sat on a park bench in Ottawa and drank from a bottle of alcohol. He’s forbidden to drink because of the drugs he takes for depression. The mixture almost put him into a coma. Police had to take him to hospital.
It was a low point in his life. But soon after, he began to write the book and to give shape to the events that haunt him. He feels the park bench is behind him now.
Dallaire has confronted the demons, some of whom were real-life ones.
“They were devils. And I couldn’t see them as human,” he says. “Just as I know there was a presence of a superior being on a couple of occasions, present as a physical vibrating sense to help me through very, very difficult moments. That same reality came through with those people. I was not discussing with humans. They had erased themselves.”
Which created in itself an ethical dilemma, do you negotiate with the devil? Or do you just take out your pistol and shoot him between the eyes.
“I describe at one point in the book where I walked in and for a second or whatever, long enough to be conscious of it, I wasn’t sure if my hand would go take my pistol out or would move to shake their hand. It was that strong,” Dallaire says.
In one passage from the book, Dallaire describes a visit to a village he had hoped had not been wiped out by the genocidaire.
In the book, Dallaire describes the scene on a hill, where even the peace had been murdered.
“It’s interesting, at times, when you say there’s no finger-pointing. There’s no help to point fingers and to lay blame…” he says.
So, who does he blame?
“I blame the American leadership, which includes the Pentagon, in projecting itself as the world policeman one day and a recluse the next,” Dallaire says.
“In fact, vulgarly stating in the General Assembly three weeks before the Rwandan genocide and civil war started, I mean, President Clinton saying in the General Assembly that through his Proposition 25 that Americans would go only if it was in their self-interest.”
Dallaire’s main line of communication with the world was through the department of Peacekeeping Operations at the UN in New York City. Before the war began, Dallaire asked for leave to take pre-emptive action against those he suspected of plotting the genocide. New York told him to back off.
“I think ‘let down’ is a bit of a soft statement,” he says. He feels betrayed. “Undermined. Poorly assessed. Putting into question my skills in the field as a commander, realizing what I was doing and the full consequence of my actions.
“Well, that came through from different sources but it was very much like I wasn’t fully grasping the depth of risk to my people. And we had taken some high risks previously in moving the rebel battalion into Kigali and a number of things like that. But it seemed to me I was being assessed as not having thought out my plan appropriately, recognizing that these soldiers are not mine.”
As the death toll mounted, General Dallaire submitted a detailed plan for a Rapid Reaction Force. He needed 5,000 soldiers to dismantle the killing machine of the genocidaire and to stop the Hutu power movement. The UN Security Council rejected the plan. The United States even refused to acknowledge the genocide to avoid any legal obligations to help.
On the first night of the war, Rwandan government forces were murdering Tutsi and Hutu moderate politicians. Dallaire dispatched one unit of 10 Belgian peacekeepers to secure the home of Rwanda’s prime minister. The Belgians were by far the most experienced of his soldiers. But they were ambushed, taken prisoner and later tortured, mutilated and murdered.
The whole battalion was pulled out of Rwanda while Belgian politicians and the Belgian public blamed Dallaire for failing to take care of his soldiers first, Rwandans second. Dallaire has always lamented those 10 deaths. But in his book he says it was, overall, the Belgians who let him down.
“I think it will give them enough food for debate. Whether they will say that I as commander did not accomplish my duty particularly to those 10, that it will very much depend on where their hearts and their brains meet. But they will not be happy with what I write.”
“There’s no happiness there. It’s blunt and it’s nasty… because at the same time they were my best. They had the potential to be so much more. They helped a lot, you know, other contingents… what they could make available. But they could have been far more than what they were. They could have been a leading atmosphere amongst the troops and the contingents. And then, ultimately, being undisciplined, haughty, unnecessarily aggressive, bordering on racism and even at times undermining the advancement of the progress.”
“I failed, yes. The mission failed. They died by the thousands, hundreds of thousands. That’s why it’s [the book] subtitled the Failure of Humanity.
It was overridden by the hatred and the racism and the fear and all the incredible horrific ways that human beings can destroy other human beings.”
After Rwanda, Dallaire was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In December of 1999, when he was 53, Dallaire was told he was not responding to treatment. The Canadian Forces medical staff reported that he was trying to kill himself through work. The chief of defence staff told Dallaire he had to forget Rwanda or forget the army. Dallaire was medically dismissed.
Dallaire says, “The medical report said, it was just a very short phrase and it said General Dallaire cannot command troops in any operation, or cannot command troops in operations any more. My whole life had been commanding troops. And that’s when I fully realized the impact of what Rwanda had done to me… I literally was not able to do what my whole career had taught me to do.”
Dallaire’s military family is in his past. His own family is front and centre. The children and his wife Elizabeth have worked to put the pieces back together over the past nine years.
Dallaire will go to Harvard next year on a fellowship – to the prestigious Carr Center – where he will study and write about conflict resolution. He also works with the Canadian government on war-affected children.
He is filled with a new idealism.
Other commentary links about Roméo Dallaire:
- The Solitary, Tortured Nobility of Roméo Dallaire (Ottawa Citizen)
- Retired General Says World Needs ‘Statesmen’ (CBC)
- UN General’s Rwandan Nightmares (BBC News)
- Roméo Dallaire (Canadians.ca)
- A Good Man in Hell: General Roméo Dallaire and the Rwanda Genocide (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
- Shake Hands With the Devil: An Interview With Roméo Dallaire
- Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs)
- Eyewitness: UN in Rwanda 1994 (BBC News)
Peacekeeping: The Invisible Wounds
There’s a cost of peacekeeping that can’t be measured; a cost that has driven Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the U.N. commander in Rwanda, to the edge of suicide and left many others deeply scarred– Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Troops who’ve witnessed horrors on peacekeeping missions abroad have nightmares, high anxiety and distress. Up to 20 per cent of Canadian peacekeepers may suffer the symptoms.
The military has been criticized for ignoring the problem. It’s now launching a new program, along with a hard-hitting video to urge sufferers to seek help.
There are scenes not even the most hardened peacekeepers can bear. The Rwanda genocide of 1994 went far, far beyond imagination: 800,000 Tutsi, many of them children, slaughtered by the majority Hutu. For some Canadians in that U.N. mission, these images are their still open wounds.
To alert troops to seek help now, the military have produced their own video, Witness The Evil, in which former Blue Berets in Rwanda talk about experiences they rarely share with outsiders. One of the men who appears Witness The Evil, is Cpl. Darrell Daines.
“[I] went into a school,” he says, “they had all the children lined up and I guess their schools were different grades. They had all the children lined up and uh, it looked like they played a game with the children… they chopped their heads off and then they’d sign their names like it was like a game.”
We now know the traumatic memories of war rarely fade. Even the few First World War survivors are affected. A recent study showed that almost half the men who survived Dieppe 56 years ago still suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Bodies without heads; bodies without arms and the smell, the horrible, horrible smell of death,” Dieppe veteran Ron Beal remembers. “That’s a kind of thing that stays with you. When you have your nightmares, you wake up through the night and it’s in your nostrils.”
What was not fully realized until the 1990s is the particular trauma of the peacekeeper, who must witness the worst suffering and inhumanities of our time. As many as 20 per cent of peacekeeping troops carry psychological scars.
In the video, Cpl. Chris Cassavoy talks about his experiences in Rwanda, “There are foods I can’t eat anymore. Grilled chicken; can’t eat it, looks like a dead body. There are vehicles that I see, like rusted out vehicles — I can’t go near them… Children, I have a hell of a time — all the time looking at little kids. Especially newborns, because they were a plaything for the Hutus. They really liked killing kids.”
Trauma is often heightened by a sense of helplessness. Maj. Phil Lancaster watched mothers and their children murdered by mobs.
“There we were. There I was, wearing a blue beret, supposedly as a member of a world body with credibility and force and power,” Lancaster says. “And interest from the nation’s people, all the best-thinking in the world, went into construction of the UN, and it didn’t mean a damn thing at that time and place. The next day I got up with the intention of going back down to the troubled area and found I just couldn’t move, just couldn’t get myself out the door. And I realized then that I’d had it. I just could not go on.”
What makes the situation still worse, is lack of support within the military itself.
“It was nothing what I expected,” Daines says in the video. “You know I expected I’d do my job. You know it’s my job as a medic to come back and just, I’d just carry on. But you couldn’t carry on. It affected my wife, it affected me, my family. It was really hard and there was no support there.”
The military was slow to react. One man’s trauma was impossible to ignore: Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the UN Commander in Rwanda left the country shaken and suicidal. After appearing in this video, he went on indefinite sick leave. Dallaire, for the first time, reveals he preferred death to remembering.
“It took nearly two years to all of a sudden not being able to cope; not being able to hide it; not being able to forget it or to put it in, keep it in a drawer,” Dallaire says. “I became suicidal because there was no other solution. You couldn’t live with the pain and the sounds and the smell and the sights. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stand the loudness of silence.
“And sometimes I wish I had lost a leg instead of having all those brain cells screwed up. You lose a leg, it’s obvious; you’ve got therapy, all kinds of stuff. You lose your marbles; very very difficult to explain, very difficult to gain that support that you need. But those who don’t recognize it and don’t go to get the help are going to be at risk to themselves and to us.”
BRIAN STEWART: And joining me now from Ottawa is the acting chief of defence, Vice-Admiral Garry Garnett.
STEWART: Adm. Garnett, post-traumatic stress syndrome has been around — the knowledge of it has been around since, really, the early ’80’s. Why has it taken so long for the Canadian military to address this problem?
VICE-ADMIRAL GARRY GARNETT/ACTING CHIEF OF DEFENCE STAFF: Well I think we were slow to appreciate what was going on and perhaps our members were slow to come forward. But we certainly believe, over the last several years, we now understand what the problem is and we’re taking firm and positive action too in the area of education, in the area of training, the area of stress management. But in particular we’ve created a center of excellence here in Ottawa, where research is being conducted and where our members can come for treatment.
STEWART: Do you really think you can prepare people for something like Rwanda, something as horrific as that?
GARNETT: Well I’ve tried to understand that myself and I think the answer is you can never — you can never prepare for everything, but you can certainly educate; you can certainly have people understand what may well happen to them. And then also their families to understand the kind of environment that we seem to be working in these days, around the world.
STEWART: One wonders though that, you know, any system is going to really depend for success upon the willingness of people in the service to come forward and say “I have a problem” or “I may have a problem,” and many in the service are still suspicious that that could hurt their careers, are they not?
GARNETT: Well I may have heard some of those stories myself, but I think we would all look to Gen. Maurice Baril, the chief of defence staff, who’s been very forward and very open and very demanding that we take care of our people as our first priority.
STEWART: But is it a concern for you that troops seeing this video might say “okay, this is something I’m not prepared to deal with. Yes, put me at some physical risk. But I’m not prepared to deal with having my mind scrambled by scenes in Bosnia or Rwanda like that.”
GARNETT: I think that it’s really a question of education. We have troops all around the world. And of course, if you look at the Swissair disaster off of Halifax, you will find a similar reaction, not just within the 2,000 military folks that were there or the medical community, but I remember reading in the Globe & Mail last weekend about some of the fishermen themselves who were first on the scene, who are experiencing these kinds of symptoms. It’s something that needs to be brought out into the open. You’ll remember in the video the nurse said “at the end of every day, I try to get people to sit down and take 15 minutes to talk about their experiences during the day.” And it’s almost as though that is one of the methods of treatment right from the beginning; to not try and hide anything or lock it away.
STEWART: Finally admiral, what about those who have left the service — the many thousands of Canadians who did serve on peacekeeping missions and are only now beginning to discover that they bear some open wounds?
GARNETT: Indeed we invite all of them to come forward: regular force, reserve force. We’re in the process, over the course of the next year, of opening three new clinics in Halifax, Valcartier and Edmonton, and enhancing the clinic here in Ottawa — putting people there who can help treat this. We’re discussing with Veterans’ Affairs, and Veterans’ Affairs will be able to refer people who are suffering from this illness to the clinics. You know this is really part of the overall quality of life program and concern for our people that Gen. Baril has been talking about. We’re doing as much as we can internally in all the areas, but to have a full complete package here, we’ll need some further resource help for the department.
STEWART: The man of course who really focussed a lot of attention on this is General Dallaire, and I understand he’s still on sick leave. Can you give us an update as to his own struggle with the Rwanda memories?
GARNETT: Ah Romeo is ah, had a month of sick leave and now he’s on what we call the medical patients holding list, receiving full support of the department. He is in the stage of still dealing with this after four years — the horrible things that he saw and went through. We all pray for Romeo for his recovery and his return to work, where he has made again the treatment, the care of our people his first priority as the associate deputy minister of human resources.
STEWART: Adm. Garnett, thanks very much.
GARNETT: Thank you.
STEWART: Well now for a view from a psychologist, Dr. Jacques Gouws has done extensive work on post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s treated veterans of several military forces.
STEWART: Dr. Gouws, what do you think of this, the new Canadian initiative?
DR. JACQUES GOUWS/PSYCHOLOGIST: I think it is a wonderful initiative Brian, I really think so. It’s a little late perhaps, in the light of all of the other literature and research in other parts of the world. But I think it’s very important.
STEWART: I think a lot of people may have assumed, over the years, wrongly it turns out, that somehow peacekeeping — peacekeeping didn’t carry the kind of dangers of traumatic stress disorder that other combat experiences would have.
GOUWS: Such as Vietnam, yes. It’s not comparable to that, if you were in Cypress. However if you were in Bosnia or in Africa or other hot spots in the world, it’s full blown war, and no soldier can just be just a bystander, looking at it from the side.
STEWART: In fact you, I think, have suggested that peacekeepers can actually suffer more frustration and more stress syndrome than actual combat troops in another — when they were fighting.
GOUWS: Absolutely right. The veterans that I work with from the Canadian Forces from places like Somalia and Bosnia actually said to me, in so many words, the biggest problem they faced was the fact that the political demands of the day dictated military doctrine.
STEWART: What are the kind of strains that the peacekeeper really is under specifically, in terms of restraint, that causes so much stress to them?
GOUWS: My understanding from the veterans is the fact that they have to be out there; they are at the mercy of snipers and other warring parties, and they are not even allowed to have their weapons fully armed. That’s one example. Another example is that they have to watch the terrible things that happen, and we have seen some of that in the video. And they can’t do a thing about it, because orders from above prevent them from doing that and soldiers follow orders to a “t.”
STEWART: What can you do to prepare somebody for a role where you’re going and watching horrors of every imaginable and unimaginable description, and you have to still play the peacekeeper role. I mean, how can you adequately prepare people for the psychological stress?
GOUWS: Well you don’t really prepare people for that stress. The literature tells us that a soldier gives up his own decision-making process, his own freedom of choice. And he puts that at the mercy of his commanding officer and whoever had sent them into the field. And what happens, is they are being faced by the threat of annihilation, and if they lose confidence in that situation, they have to deal with death as the very real threat to life. And whenever we have to deal with a real threat of death, we become extremely traumatized by what happens around us.
STEWART: How important is leadership at that phase?
GOUWS: Vital. It is absolutely vital. Breakdown of leadership has shown, or has been shown in the literature, to have taken a regiment or a unit that was excellent and that had been heroic in the field and turned them into a couple of people that couldn’t even get themselves out of mild trouble.
STEWART: Given the fact, though, that peacekeeping is likely to repeat itself in ways we have seen been in the past, you can’t be very optimistic about the ability of a program like this to prepare people for future missions though.
GOUWS: I think it’s important that soldiers should know what they will be facing. Education is an important part of it. But the most important factor that has been shown to prevent combat stress reaction from developing is leadership, and the confidence that soldiers have in their leadership and the cohesion within the unit. And the one thing that has been shown that should not happen is units should not break up at all.
STEWART: Dr. Gouws, thanks very much.
GOUWS: You’re very welcome.
Casualties of Peace
Reporter: Judy Piercey ~ Producer: Grant Gelinas
This is an unsettling look behind Canada’s face abroad — the peacekeepers we send into some of the world’s trouble spots. Now it seems many of them are coming home highly troubled themselves. Recently, a Canadian Forces inquiry put an official stamp on what many soldiers have long known to be true. That long after our troops have left the fighting, the killing, the humanitarian disasters behind, they are still waging private battles; battles with the memories of all they have seen and experienced.
Even the warmest homecomings can’t erase the horrors that have become etched in some soldiers’ minds. The peacekeepers who prompted the military’s inquiry served in Croatia. Their mission was optimistically named “Operation Harmony.” Illnesses that were initially blamed on soil used to fill protective sandbags are now being linked to the stress of combat.
“Veterans of ‘Operation Harmony’ have experienced a pace and intensity of operations unknown to Canadian soldiers since the Korean War,” Col. Joe Sharpe told reporters on December 16.
The kids in Redwater, Alberta were proud to have a real live peacekeeper as their guest for Remembrance Day. Too young to understand world peace, they already know that when it comes to something called peacekeeping, Canada is number one.
Master Corporal Steve Atkins was the guest of honour.
“Peace begins on your playground,” Atkins told the kids. “And we’re fighting to keep people alive. That is what the Canadian Armed Forces has become.”
Watching in the crowd was the soldier’s wife, Liz Atkins. Her public face was one of pride, but it hid a private pain.
“I can’t imagine what another tour would do to my kids,” she said.
The Atkins’ family’s private pain is the story behind Canada’s public image as the world’s premier peacekeeper. Sending Canada’s soldiers around the world extracts a terrible human toll. In a military cut by one third in the past decade, the same peacekeepers keep getting sent away over and over again. Canada can’t seem to say no to the world and the soldiers are paying the price.
Mstr. Cpl. Atkins enlisted at age 19. He knew the life. His father-in-law was a colonel, his brother- in-law an army mechanic and his own father a career Air Force officer.
“I asked my dad if he would mind swearing me in. So he came down to the recruiting centre and I swore my oath of allegiance before my father. And that was kind of special,” Atkins said.
His wife Liz was also a child of the military and his high school sweetheart.
“He was the class clown. He was a goof. He was fun,” she said.
They had four children and a lot of fun over the next ten years. As his career as a medic took off, he was away a lot, both training and teaching. The family accepted the separations as part of the military life they knew and loved. Then six years ago, when his son Matthew was only three days old, Steve was sent on his first assignment: Croatia.
“Kiss Liz, kiss the baby; go home to see the kids, pack your gear, get on the plane and go,” Atkins said.
But when he landed in Croatia, he saw instantly that there was no peace to keep.
“The devastation that was there was just beyond words,” Atkins said.
Steve ended up in Medac pocket, the hottest war zone in the former Yugoslavia in 1993. The Canadians were sent in after other nations pulled their peacekeepers out. It was a place where Canadians found themselves not just peacekeeping, but actually fighting.
“That was one of the biggest shockers for me, was they the thought that they didn’t want us there,” Atkins said.
When he came back from Croatia, Atkins was no longer sure he still loved the military life. But he kept his doubts to himself.
“I knew when I got back from Croatia in ’93 that I was different; that something had changed.
I was much more cynical, much more emotionally detached,” he said.
Helping during the Red River floods helped restored his faith in the military. He was awarded a commendation for bravery for helping to save a soldier’s life. He felt good again about being a soldier. But the glory was short-lived. Soon after, Atkins got word he would be posted overseas again — this time to Bosnia. The family braced themselves emotionally, desperate to cling to the bonds they had left.
“The girls grabbed T-shirts. I think they all did, grabbed T-shirts from dad and used them as pillowcases so that they could hug dad every night when they went to bed,” Liz said.
“And I brought pictures, I mean probably 100 pictures of the kids. And Liz would send me care packages with colourings and whatnot the kids had done,” Atkins said.
But even the mementoes of his family’s love did not shield him against the evil of Bosnia.
“It’s almost impossible to explain to somebody who hasn’t been in a theatre like that to really, I think, get someone to comprehend what that place was like,” Atkins said.
Atkins still has trouble coming to terms with what he saw. To help deal with it, he’s being treated by Dr. Greg Passey, a military psychiatrist. Lt. Cmdr. Passey himself served as a peacekeeper in Rwanda. He has been fighting with his bosses for the past six years to get psychological help for peacekeepers.
“We’ve got an excellent reputation but it’s being built on the psychological health of our troops,” Passey said.
Brent Ratzloff served in Bosnia as a military police officer. Now he spends his time painting and making crafts to help pass the time, and as therapy to keep the symptoms of his post traumatic stress disorder under control.
“I still get flashbacks and stuff, but I stay in the house mostly now. I don’t much like to go around a lot of other people. I prefer to stay here. It’s safe,” Ratzloff said.
When he went to Bosnia on his first peacekeeping tour, Ratzloff took a video camera to record what he thought would be the greatest adventure of his career. He first saw the graves of war victims as a blur from the passenger seat of his police jeep. But then he was assigned to identity bodies buried in mass graves.
“[There was] A pile of bodies probably about oh, maybe eight feet high and in diameter maybe about 20 feet,” Ratzloff said. “And they were all, well, they were all dead and they were all stuck together and you had to pry them apart with cement tools and stuff like that. Besides the smell, the main thing that bothered me was one day I was just sitting there and I was eating my lunch.
“And about two feet to the left of me was the body of a — he was probably about between nine and 12 years old. I still remember his runners, socks, blue jeans, his jean jacket, his black T-shirt with Metallica on it, red baseball cap. That was the worst. That and the small child. Some of the younger kids, they figured that they were still alive because they had dirt all the way down into their mouths. And the way they were like stuck — you could see they were trying to claw out, but they weren’t going to make it.”
These are the stories Dr. Passey hears over and over again. He’s a leading expert in post traumatic stress, a disorder afflicting 15 per cent of Canadian peacekeepers. He expects the number to increase with repeat tours of duty.
“But when the disorder is at — when it’s really raging at its worse — it’s almost like there’s this hollow person there with rage just waiting to go out,” Passey said. “[He’s] Constantly haunted by images, by activities, by experiences that he was exposed to.”
“You get about half a dozen women wailing, and you listen to this for the whole day,” Ratzloff said. “And then when I got back here, every now and then I get the nightmare that the people that were laying on the side of the road are sitting outside my cube, trying to get in to get my family. Or if it’s windy outside or noisy or something like that, then it kicks in the wailing.”
The memories have Cpl. Ratzloff unable to work. Now his only connection with police work is watching cops on TV. He admits he could be dangerous on the job, if his anger were triggered.
“With me, it’s any time I see somebody either slapping their kid or disciplining their child or any young person, for some reason; I click back and I start remembering the kids. And then I get mad and then I get very angry. And yeah, I do I lash out and I strike people,” Ratzloff said.
It’s happened a few times already. Once his former colleagues were called to take him away in handcuffs after he became violent. Another two times he’s attacked strangers in an Edmonton shopping mall. Now he’s afraid to leave his house on the base for fear of what he might do.
“It would be interesting to see how a city police officer would approach me when I’m in one of my states. It’s pretty well a given they’re going to use pepper or something. They have to,” he said.
“When is someone going to snap and do something horrific?” Passey asked. “I like to think never. But you have to realize we’re training people to a high level of combat readiness. We then take some of these people to the edge of their ability to cope. And we’re churning a lot of people out like this.”
No one knows the threat of anger better than Steve Atkins’ family. On the surface, the Atkins family looks happy enough. But the whole family knows that at any moment, the music could just stop. The peace could end.
“I feel like a policeman. I feel like I always have to be on guard; always have to be prepared for how he may or may not react,” Liz said.
“You want to know what kind of effect it’s had on my family? It’s taken a 13-year-old, a 13-year-old kid that never did anything wrong, who is one of the best and nicest kids you’d ever want to meet. It’s probably scarred him for life simply because of the way his dad has been angry with him for the last six years,” Steve said.
“The kids need to ask permission to hug him, because he needs his space,” Liz said. “If he’s not prepared or in control to be in that situation, he backs off. It’s like he’s being threatened. You can’t walk behind him and have a conversation, you need. I mean he sits on the couch and the kids come through and walk up behind him and he loses it. And it’s not, you know, come around and talk to me face first; it’s he screams at them.
“I feel ashamed. I feel like an abusive parent. I feel like a bad person,” Steve said.
The military is trying to help soldiers like Atkins and Ratzloff with special counselling centres. The recently opened centre in Edmonton is one of five across Canada. A team of psychologists and social workers works with soldiers to come to terms with their emotions. The military’s top brass recognizes that something must be done. However, the centre came too late for Steve Atkins. He recently asked Dr. Passey to put him on a medical leave that would lead to his discharge from the military.
“You know the first thing that went through my mind when I started asking him that, was my father and how he looked when he swore me in. And the look that would be on his face when I called him and told him that I couldn’t do it anymore,” Steve said.
Mstr. Cpl. Steve Atkins wore his uniform one final time on Remembrance Day, determined that he will be the last soldier in his military family. It was a poignant moment; a moment of reflection about whether Canada will learn to say no to the world, or just accept what will surely be a growing number of casualties among peacekeepers and their families.
“My kids have gone through enough. My entire family has done enough for their country,” Steve said.
Indepth ~ Rwanda
On August 25, 2003, Paul Kagame, a former Tutsi rebel, was elected as Rwanda’s first president since 800,000 minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were systematically slaughtered between April and June 1994.
The genocide was sparked when a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down over Kigali airport on April 6, 1994, but ethnic tension between Hutus and Tutsis dates back to the colonial period, when Rwanda was a Belgian colony.
The Belgians saw clear ethnic distinctions between the two groups and tended to favour the minority Tutsis in government positions. The power shifted in 1959, when civil war forced 200,000 Tutsis to flee the country.
The Tutsis became victims of Hutu massacres throughout the past four decades, but the worst slaughter occurred in spring 1994: most of the killings, which took place during a 100-day period were carried out by a well-organized force of 8,000 extremist Hutus.
In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, northern Tanzania, handed down its first genocide conviction. The tribunal found Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former mayor, to have incited the murder of 2,000 people and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
On November 6, 2003, four former Rwandan government officials went on trial on charges of planning and taking part in the 1994 genocide.
The UN Security Council set up the tribunal in 1994. It has convicted 12 people and acquitted one. As of November 2003, there were still 56 defendants in detention.
The tribunal has come under attack by several genocide survivor organizations for being inefficient and mismanaged.
Rwanda was first colonized by Germany in the 1890s, but control passed to Belgium in 1919 after the First World War. Belgium ruled indirectly through the Rwandan king and, in 1935, introduced mandatory identification cards to Rwandans: those in possession of 10 or more cows were classified Batutsi, or Tutsi; those with fewer were called Bahutu, or Hutu. The king and the Belgians favoured the more affluent Batutsi and installed them as vassals in charge of governing the regions of Rwanda.
Unsatisfied with the balance of power, the Hutu called for more representation in government. When King Mutara III died in 1959 and his Tutsi successor, Kigeri V, was appointed, the Hutus revolted and violence erupted.
In 1962, Rwanda gained its independence, after rejecting its ties with Belgium in a referendum. That year, Grégoire Kayibanda, a Hutu, was elected the first president.
This marked the beginning of widespread persecution of the Tutsi. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s they were systematically murdered and many fled to neighbouring countries. According to Rwanda’s government Web site, two million Rwandans fled to Uganda, Congo and Tanzania to escape the violence.
In 1973, Kayibanda was overthrown in a military coup and Maj. Gen. Juvénal Habyarimana – also a Hutu – was installed as the new leader. He was officially elected five years later after drafting a new constitution, and remained in power until 1994. Among the changes made by Habyarimana during his regime was an ethnic quota for government jobs, allowing the Tutsi only nine per cent of all federal positions.
The frustrated Tutsi wanted Habyarimana pulled from power. In 1987, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), a group of Tutsi and Tutsi sympathizers, was established by supporters of the former Rwandese Alliance for National Unity.
In October 1990, the new party launched a so-called “war of liberation” on the government. Thousands of RPF fighters streamed in from neighbouring countries attacking Hutu government forces before French and Zairian troops intervened and forced a shaky ceasefire in 1991.
The bloodletting continued in the years following, as thousands more Hutu and Tutsi died in massacres around Rwanda. The bloodiest year by far was 1994. In April of that year, President Habyarimana died when his airplane was shot down outside Kigali. Although no group was officially held responsible, the killing is thought by many to have been carried out by Hutu extremists who could then shift blame to the Tutsi.
The killing of Habyarimana proved to be the opening act of the worst genocide Rwanda has seen. Hutu extremists vowed revenge for the killing and began to systematically murder Tutsi and moderate Hutu. The attacks sparked counterattacks by Tutsi.
Fearing for their lives, Tutsi, moderate Hutu, NGO workers and foreign nationals fled the country as the Red Cross reported that tens of thousands had died in the first days of killing.
By mid-May, one month after the killing began, the Red Cross estimated half a million Rwandans had been killed in the massacre. By July, the RPF took Kigali and drove Hutu extremists out of the country. That marked an end to the 100-day bloodbath that left an estimated 800,000 dead.
The RPF immediately set up an interim government and agreed to submit to UN tribunal hearings into the mass killings. The tribunal – based in Arusha, northern Tanzania – delivered its first genocide conviction in September 1998, ruling in the case of Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former mayor accused of inciting the murder of 2,000 Tutsis.
With that decision, the tribunal became the first international court to hand down a conviction for genocide.
Since then, conditions in Rwanda have stabilized somewhat. Hutus and other Rwandans scattered abroad as a result of the killing have returned. A so-called Government of National Unity was formed with the intention of including both Hutu and Tutsi elements.
Paul Kagame, a Tutsi who returned to Rwanda in 1990 after fleeing for Uganda 30 years earlier, became president in 2000.
Genocide in Rwanda: Timeline of Events
Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels cross border into Rwanda from their Uganda base. Rebel leader killed, attack repulsed.
July 12, 1992
Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated government and RPF agree to peace deal in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania.
Feb. 8, 1993
Negotiations between two sides suspended after RPF breaches ceasefire.
March 7, 1993
Peace talks back on.
Aug. 4, 1993
Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and RPF sign Arusha Peace Agreement. It stipulates a 22-month transitional government within 37 days, elections by 1995 and the deployment of an international peacekeeping force.
Oct. 5, 1993
UN Security Council resolution 872 creates the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). It receives a six-month deployment.
December 1993 – April 1994
Transitional government for Rwanda fails to evolve.
April 6, 1994
President Habyarimana and Burundi’s President Cyprien Ntaryamira killed when rocket strikes plane outside Kigali Airport. Sparks violence and refugee exodus; in two weeks more than one million refugees flee the country.
April 7, 1994
Presidential guards kill Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwibiyiyimana (Madame Agathe).
April 14, 1994
Belgium withdraws troops.
April 21, 1994
UN Security Council votes to withdraw 90 per cent of UNAMIR peacekeepers from Rwanda. Roughly 270 troops remain.
May 17, 1994
UN Security Council resolution says “acts of genocide may have been committed.”
June 22, 1994
UN Security Council authorizes member states to intervene. France and Senegal send troops to Rwanda.
RPF take control of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Drive Hutu-dominated RGF into Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). RPF declares unilateral ceasefire and establishes own government, naming Pasteur Bizimungu as president and Faustin Twagiramungu as prime minister.
Rwanda’s first genocide trial under the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) opens in Arusha.
Bizimungu resigns as president, citing differences with the RPF. He is replaced by Vice-President Paul Kagame. A Tutsi, Kagame was an RPF commander throughout the genocide.
August 25, 2003
Kagame elected president in Rwanda’s first popular vote for president.
Rwanda ~ Ten Years Later
Ten years after 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered between April and June 1994, survivors gathered in the village of Gisozi, on the outskirts of the capital, Kigali. About 250,000 Hutus and Tutsis are buried on Gisozi hill in a mass grave.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame lit a torch to burn 100 days – the length of the genocide. Coffins carrying the remains of 20 victims were symbolically reburied around the newly-opened Kigali Memorial Centre. The burial marked a week-long period of mourning in the tiny African nation.
The United Nations says that each April 7 the world should remember Rwanda, designating the day as the international day of reflection on the genocide.
However, with the exception of Belgium, Rwanda’s former colonial power, no western leaders attended the ceremony. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan – head of UN peacekeeping during the genocide – did not attend.
“As we leave here today, I want each of us to make a resolve and a vow to do all that we can that events such as that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 will never again occur either in Rwanda or elsewhere in the world.”
Jacqueline Murekatete, genocide survivor ~ April 7, 2004
“Today we remember the people who were brutally murdered, and their families… We must also think what more we can do to help Rwanda and her people to recover from an unimaginable trauma. And most of all, we and the world’s governments must pledge to act decisively to ensure that such a denial of our common humanity is never allowed to happen again. Only if we do these things can we honour the victims whom we remember today. Only so can we save those who might be victims tomorrow.”
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan ~ April 7, 2004
“This sorrowful anniversary provides an important opportunity to reflect on how and why the genocide occurred, and on the lessons to be learned, so that we can reform the international system in order to prevent such mass atrocities in the future.”
Prime Minister Paul Martin ~ April 6, 2004
“When I became prime minister, I decided that it was my duty to come here to honour the memory of the victims of the genocide and especially to ask forgiveness on behalf of my country.”
Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt ~ April 7, 2004
“Today we mark the 10th anniversary of genocide in our country. Ten long agonizing years now separate us from those days which turned day into night, life into death. It is a day we remember systematic slaughter of over a million of our innocent fellow Rwandans, an orgy of bloodletting unprecedented in the history of our nation. Ten years on, the survivors of these gruesome crimes still suffer in silence. There has been dual survival. Survival of the ordeal and survival of the aftermath of the genocide. A decade has done little to alleviate the anguish.”
Rwandan President Paul Kagame ~ April 7, 2004
“The Rwandan genocide happened because the international community – if I may be brutal, as the genocide was – didn’t give one damn for Rwandans because Rwandans don’t count. Rwanda is of no strategic value to anybody, and has no strategic resources.”
Roméo Dallaire, UN force commander during genocide ~ April 7, 2004
“We cannot repair the failure, but the world can be serious about preventing genocide.”
Louise Frechette, deputy secretary general to the United Nations ~ April 7, 2004
“We did not cry out as loudly as we should have against the enormous and heinous crime against the people of Rwanda that was committed in 1994. For that, we owe the people of Rwanda a sincere apology, which I now extend in all sincerity and humility.”
South African President Thabo Mbeki ~ April 7, 2004
Reconciliation in Rwanda
CBC News Analysis by Matthew Pace
Ten years ago this month Rwandans were celebrating the Easter holiday. Beatha Uwazaninka had left her hometown to visit her aunt and uncle in Kigali. The killers arrived soon after.
“It was quite mad,” Uwazaninka says. “The Interahamwe had stuck grass into their uniforms. They were laughing and singing. It was like they were coming to kill snakes. But you knew what was going to happen.”
“Interahamwe” is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “those who attack together.” Beatha Uwazaninka saw them attack together. They killed her aunt and uncle. Then they killed her five cousins.
What Uwazaninka thought was going to happen to her didn’t. She escaped out the back door, ran into the forest and kept on running. When she got home, the woman next door was in her mother’s dress. Her mother’s body was floating down the river. She never learned what happened to her two sisters or her two brothers.
Neighbours had got along just fine until the Belgians took control of Rwanda in the early 1900s and started favouring the minority Tutsis over the Hutus. For most of the 20th century tension, violence and political struggle separated the two groups.
Then, in early 1994, the Tutsis heard murmurs of a deadly plan. On April 6, someone – it’s still not clear who – shot down a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu. It was the catalyst for what many Hutus hoped would be a “final solution.”
Hutu militias had trained secretly for months under the guidance of the government army. On April 7, they put what they learned into practice. They started with Hutu politicians who didn’t agree with them. Then they turned on the Tutsis. They killed with machetes, clubs, even garden hoes. Men killed pregnant women. Priests killed their parishioners. Boys killed their playmates.
The killers encouraged each other, saying “do your work.” Soon, corpses were piling up on roadsides. They filled sewers and abandoned office buildings. Bloated bodies choked rivers. Day after day, the militias worked. After three months, 800,000 people were dead. Yet those in the international community couldn’t bring themselves to call this “genocide.”
Ten years later, Rwandans are reflecting on the horrors they visited on each other. The identification cards they used to carry are gone. Few people talk about “Hutus” or “Tutsis” anymore, except among their own. And even here, there is little talk of genocide, just muted mentions of “the war.” One gets to weighing words such as “forgiveness” and “reconciliation.”
Plautille Kageruka has much to forgive. A soldier took her hostage and raped her during an earlier round of violence in 1990. She got away. But soon after, she found out she was HIV positive.
Kageruka is a Tutsi, her husband a Hutu. They were married in 1993 and had a son the next year. On April 7, they woke up early to shooting outside their door. “We knew it was bad,” she says. “The Interahamwe were stacking the bodies like firewood.”
Her husband saw a boy who sang at their church. “He sang beautifully,” she says. He was wounded and lying with others in the street. “My husband asked if we should save him.” She told her husband the same thing would happen to him. She found out later that it happened to her parents, her two brothers and two sisters.
“I pray for forgiveness,” she says. “Our priest tells us Jesus will heal everyone. Otherwise we’ll go mad and run into the forest as we did before.”
When the genocide is discussed, forgiveness, or attempts at it, is a main theme. Movie posters are pasted onto a window in front of Kigali’s Hotel Milles Collines. The Keepers of Memory is a documentary about survivors, “an extraordinary journey of a people’s bravery, to live and love again.”
Another, 100 Days, was shot on location in Kigali using actors who witnessed the genocide. It’s “film noir,” the poster says, “1950s horror movie style.” Beside them is a poster for a Jackie Chan movie.
Beyond that, there are few signs of a major anniversary. Hundreds of workers scurried about the national genocide museum in the district of Gisozi in the weeks before the anniversary. But, 10 years after the genocide, the museum isn’t finished. Still, heads of state from around the world will join a march to the museum to mark the event.
“The genocide museum in Rwanda will stand as a warning to others,” says Beatha Uwazaninka, who volunteers as a guide. “We don’t want to build any other genocide memorials anywhere else. Never again.”
The words have been spoken before. Still, the United Nations has designated April 7 as an “International Day of Reflection” for Rwanda. Countries around the world will hold a minute’s silence at noon in remembrance of what happened here and what didn’t happen elsewhere.
Uwazaninka is reflecting, too. “Perhaps 10 years is too short a time,” she says. “I suppose reconciliation won’t be for us. It will be for our children.”
Filming the Unfilmable
The Challenge of the Genocide Movie
By Katrina Onstad
The recent, critically-acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda is based on a true story. The hero is a hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina (played by Oscar-nominee Don Cheadle), a starched, politically polite businessman who turned a luxurious Belgian-owned hotel into a refuge for more than a thousand vulnerable Tutsis hiding from their bloodthirsty Hutu countrymen. In one scene, when the gruesome massacres that ended the lives of nearly a million Rwandans are well underway, Rusesabagina is shown at night, driving to get supplies with a colleague from the hotel. In the fog and darkness, it is unclear why the road beneath his jeep is covered with crevices and lumps. He steps out of the car and the mist parts to reveal a road covered in bodies ribboning into the distance: the cause of the bumping wheels.
Hotel Rwanda is a potent, moving depiction of an atrocity that only a decade ago went ignored by most of the world in both power corridors and private homes. But watching that scene, harrowing as it is, an astute filmgoer knows exactly what to expect. The strange, and perhaps dangerous, sensation one gets watching Hotel Rwanda is the un-shock of the familiar; the specificity of what went on in Rwanda is, in a way, lost in the generic category “genocide film.” When the fog clears and the camera pulls back for the inevitable “reveal” – stacks of dead bodies – one recalls uncannily similar climactic moments in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, about Cambodian genocide, Roberto Benigni’s 1998 Holocaust film Life is Beautiful, and Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s 1997 depiction of the Chinese government’s atrocities in Tibet where the Dalai Lama, in a dream state, sees the bloodied bodies of Buddhist monks piled like laundry at his feet. Of course, such unimaginable moments have occurred, and are occurring, but do they lose their power when they become cinematic tropes, reducing horror to a plot point or a hero’s redemption? The danger of moviemaking is that it somehow levels genocide, and evil becomes as significant, or insignificant, as the predictable beats of a thriller or an epic weepie.
Famously, German philosopher Theodor Adorno remarked on the seeming impossibility of art after the Holocaust when he said: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Over and over in films with genocide as a subject, the complicated morality of making art out of atrocity sits anxiously next to the simple sentimentalism that defines Hollywood.
“These kinds of films always have to deal with an uneasy alchemy between atrocity and glamour, particularly in their marketing,” says director Atom Egoyan from his Toronto production office. Three years ago, Egoyan released a film called Ararat about Turkey’s murder and deportation of more than a million of its Armenian citizens in 1915. With an intricate framing device typical of his work, Egoyan used the background of a conventional historical drama to make a film that’s really about the complexities of making a film about genocide. Indeed, it seems almost like a direct response to, if not a refutation of, Adorno’s quote.
“As artists we can’t help but try and address the notion of commemoration. It’s part of our responsibility,” says Egoyan. “And yet I think we also have to address the complexity of it. You can’t just believe that it’s going to be a matter of solving something by showing it.”
Because the Armenian genocide is still hotly debated and denied by many Turks, Ararat was burdened with the peculiar difficulty of not only struggling to depict genocide, but also having to defend its very existence. The film received mixed to negative reviews, the poorest of Egoyan’s celebrated career.
“There are always going to be people who find that [a film about genocide] trivializes their pain, and they’re right,” says Egoyan. “It’s a perverse thing to say when we’re talking about genocide or atrocity, but one has to find a way of entertaining a viewer to engage with the drama, and that’s where it becomes unseemly. It was also my great challenge.”
The urge to entertain may account for the structural similarity between genocide movies, and that uncomfortable sensation that we’ve seen it all before.
“You have to choose a simple story. You need the hero. A happy ending helps, though if you’ve got the hero, you can get away with the unhappy ending,” says Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. But of course, by definition, genocide (defined by the UN as certain acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”) is the eradication of self, or selves, and therefore agency; it leaves almost no room for heroism.
“In a way, Hotel Rwanda had both the hero and the happy ending, which is really historically anomalous,” says Power. “That might be a problem, that people can come out of a Rwanda film and feel like: Wooh! Uplifting!”
Genocide in the movies is actually relatively new, at least in Hollywood. In fact, 80 per cent of films on the Holocaust have been produced in Europe. In her book, Power writes that the first American films after the Second World War didn’t mention the Holocaust at all, but were, instead, typical combat movies set on the front lines, or the domestic front when soldiers returned home. The 1959 film version of The Diary of Anne Frank elides reference to the Holocaust entirely. After test audiences recoiled, director George Stevens deleted his final scene, in which Frank is seen in a concentration camp uniform, and replaced the image with a more upbeat line, taken from the play: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” The 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg shocked audiences by including documentary footage from concentration camps, but according to Power, not until the 1979 TV miniseries Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep, did an American fictional film actually attempt to represent the Holocaust in all its physical horror. The sheer scale of the imagery – thousands marching towards their deaths, gaunt, emaciated bodies in full view – was unprecedented for American audiences.
In recent years, filmmakers have grown bolder, and their films more graphic. The 2001 film The Grey Zone is an unflinchingly violent depiction of an armed uprising at Auschwitz starring David Arquette. Despite good reviews, it drew almost no audience, suggesting that though new technologies allow filmmakers to portray almost any event with accuracy – from mass murder to the White House exploding – such advances don’t guarantee a stronger emotional impact; quite the opposite, in fact. Genocide can come to look like just another special effect, which is perhaps why a biographical figure, like Rusesabagina or Oscar Schindler, hero of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), is still most filmmakers’ chosen entry point into atrocity. The hero plot is a way of making something singular out of an experience – mass death – that is incomprehensibly collective.
Ian Merkel, a programmer with the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival for the past seven years, says the festival almost never opens with a violent film for fear of alienating the audience. “We would never show a very horrific movie on opening night. If we show more than two or three Holocaust films during the Festival, our attendance drops,” he says. “Maybe there’s just so much violence on television and everywhere now that people are sick of it. They don’t want that kind of gruesomeness in films, too.”
Documentary filmmakers approaching genocide struggle with their own responsibilities around explicitness. Canadian director Peter Raymont, who made the documentary Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire (winner of the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at Sundance last week) about the Canadian UN general’s return to Rwanda a decade after losing the fight to stop the slaughter, recalls the gut-wrenching task of sifting through the massive archive of Rwandan massacre footage he’d accumulated. One of his editors was physically unable to watch a journalist’s tape of citizens having their heads cut off by machetes, no matter that the images were shot through trees with a long lens. “These are people who are dead or injured and you haven’t asked for permission to use that footage, so you wonder: Does it serve a greater purpose or not?” asks Raymont. “When does it become exploitative?”
For Raymont, decisions about what to show, and what to excise, are based purely on instinct, and on the need to hold an audience. “You don’t want to desensitize viewers to horror and violence, and of course that can happen if the footage is too extreme. On the other hand, it’s important to convey the horror and the evil. I guess the question for feature film directors is can people tolerate more if they know it’s fictionalized as compared to real footage – real dead bodies as opposed to fictionalized dead bodies.”
The delicate, subjective nature of our responses to genocide on film was never more apparent than with the release of Life is Beautiful. The comedy – or, as Benigni defended it, the “fable” – is the story of an Italian-Jewish father who harbours his young son in a concentration camp by pretending they’re playing an elaborate game of make-believe with the Nazis. The film won a slew of awards, including a Best Actor Oscar for Benigni, though some audiences and critics reviled it. Wrote David Denby in the New Yorker: “I came out of the theater feeling ash gray, as if my soul had been mugged.” Denby believed that the film pandered to an audience “exhausted by the Holocaust…sick to death of the subject’s unending ability to disturb.” He called it “a benign form of Holocaust denial.”
“Life is Beautiful didn’t give me the feeling it should have,” says Merkel, getting at the itchiness many experienced watching the scene where the fog parts to reveal a pile of dead bodies that looked like cartoon characters. “The images weren’t stark enough. I’ve never seen such clean looking Holocaust survivors.”
Perhaps for a film about genocide to succeed, then, we need a balance: audiences will accept, even embrace, the compromises that all movies ask of them – to simplify the world; to make heroes and villains out of perpetrators and victims who may be both, or neither – but they also require some nod to the unshowable reality of the situation. The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s 2002 film about a Jewish musician surviving the Warsaw ghetto, struck exactly that balance: Polanski portrayed the bloody, chewed corpses of Nazi victims, and at the same time, the awesome human resistance to becoming one of those. In contrast, Benigni’s film was all hero, and no horror.
And yet, perhaps any film about genocide, no matter how flawed, is an urgent one. To mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the National Post released a COMPAS survey saying that less than a quarter of Canadian respondents, 23%, knew how many Jews were killed by the Nazis. More alarmingly, nearly the same percentage was unable to say whether the Jews were at fault for the Holocaust.
Samantha Power, who has traveled the globe documenting atrocities past and present, is on her way to East Timor this winter. She finds questions around cinematic depictions of genocide academic, and a luxury. “I’m just pragmatic at this point. If you sentimentalize a tad but tell a largely true story and you get, what, 200 people or five million people to swallow the bitter pill of genocide for the first time, that’s enough for me,” she says. “Hotel Rwanda is particularly powerful because it’s not a black-and-white genocide from ancient history. It’s genocide shot in colour in the present day. If we have to choose the more palatable Trojan horse, I’ll take it. Maybe the next film will be about Darfour. It can’t come soon enough.”