Editor’s Note: This film was screened at New York’s Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater) as part of the Human Rights Film Festival in June. As yet, it has no U.S. opening date.
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Films about genocide often force us to put our consciences on trial. What would we do if our neighbors were being murdered because of their race or creed? Would we act heroically or cravenly? The British film Shooting Dogs, based on a true story and co-written by a BBC journalist who worked in Rwanda during the genocide, is an absorbing meditation on what men do in dark times.
Unlike Hotel Rwanda (2004) or Sometimes in April (2005), which also chronicle the mass murder of Tutsis in 1994, Shooting Dogs focuses on the actions of two Westerners, Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy) and Father Christopher (John Hurt). Joe, an idealistic Brit in his early 20s, is an English teacher at the École technique officielle, a Kigali-based Catholic school run by the longtime expatriate English priest. (The film’s placement of two white non-Africans at its center reprises the standard method to solicit white, Western audiences.)
Joe is ever the familiar chap. He confesses to having grown up in England with all the standard middle class comforts. His decision to teach in Rwanda stems from a desire to give something back, a sentiment he bashfully shares with Rachel, a jaded television journalist played by Nicola Walker. When the school becomes a sanctuary for Tutsis fleeing machete-wielding genocidares, Joe leaves the United Nations-secured compound in hopes of retrieving Rachel and her cameraman. Innocently, he believes that the slaughter will end if the world is shown images of murdered Africans. Rachel disabuses him of such faith in the media’s power when she recalls her experiences covering the grisly civil war in Bosnia. If the world stood idly by as white Europeans were massacred, there is no chance that scenes of Africans hacked to death will galvanize the U.N. Security Council into action.
Like Joe, Father Christopher also trusts the U.N. will intervene as soon as it learns of the atrocities. U.N. Capitaine Charles Delon (Dominique Horwitz) and his small Belgian force are stationed at the school, the only figures standing between frenzied Hutu extremists and the defenseless Tutsis who have flocked there for protection. The very embodiment of an unyielding bureaucrat, Delon is the object of everyone’s ire. His mandate, he tells Father Christopher, is to monitor the peace, no more, no less. Of course, there is no peace to monitor. The mandate will not change, either, Delon tells the priest. The reason? Somalia. The murder of U.S. troops during a humanitarian aid mission in 1992 squelched the political “will” for such interventions.
When institutional forces fail to step in, Father Christopher and Joe must decide how far they will go to help others. Will they save themselves by boarding the French Legion trucks that arrive to evacuate Europeans as well as Delon’s U.N. force? The fate of those who stay behind is a barbaric death, so unfathomably horrific that a Tutsi community leader, Roland (Steve Toussaint), begs the departing Delon for a final act of mercy, to order his men to fire upon the hundreds of Tutsis in the compound. Execution would be infinitely more humane, he pleads. In the backdrop of this surreal exchange, we see soldiers helping foreigners onto the convoys while at the same time rebuffing desperate Rwandans. The message is clear: a white person’s life is more valuable than that of an African. If weren’t true, we wouldn’t feel such shame.
And shame is the expression on Joe’s face as he sits on the back of a truck transporting him to safety. Five years later, Marie (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a former student of his who survived the genocide, asks Joe, now a teacher at a private school in England, why he left them behind. “I was afraid of dying,” he says. Joe did what most of us would have done. Bringing this sad truth into sharp relief, Shooting Dogs is a lacerating film.