Film

Film

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After two fictionalized accounts, an unflinching Rwanda doc

Unable to get the world’s attention when it counted most, Rwanda is suddenly all the rage, at least in the movies. The country’s 1994 genocide, which saw some 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates slaughtered by Hutu extremists during a mere 100 days, got the full-on Schindler’s List treatment in Terry George’s Oscar hopeful Hotel Rwanda. Raoul Peck’s recent made-for-HBO Sometimes in April was a more diffuse, if less involving, take on the crisis. Is this trend an oblique acknowledgment of ongoing events in the Congo, Darfur, and elsewhere, or merely a sign that enough time has passed to safely consign Rwanda to history? Simultaneously big picture and tunnel vision, Peter Raymont’s documentary is essentially the account of Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, former commander of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Rwanda (and the inspiration for Nick Nolte’s Hotel Rwanda character). Based in part on Dallaire’s recent book of the same title, Shake Hands With the Devil follows the general back to the country that continues to fuel his nightmares.

Careful to begin at the beginning, Shake Hands rebuffs those eager to write off the Rwanda tragedy as another case of African tribalist conflict, noting that it was the area’s former Belgian occupiers who first codified the notion of racial group identity by listing ethnicity on national ID cards. Dallaire recounts the grim sequence of events that led to the collapse of his mission: the January 1994 discovery of weapons caches and subsequent refusal of the U.N. bureaucracy to sanction a raid, the April death of Rwanda’s Hutu president in a plane crash, the murder of 10 Belgian paratroopers the next day. Likewise unflinching, Raymont doesn’t shy away from the ensuing massacre—there’s a gruesome image of a swamp full of bodies—but the most disturbing moments are of Dallaire looking back, as when he visits a war memorial at which the skulls of genocide victims are arranged neatly on tables. (As Dallaire’s wife notes, many of the skulls are small and others appear to have sustained significant damage.)

Dallaire sees his current role as that of a “witness,” but it’s clear that the trip, book, and film are also therapy. Its title an acknowledgment of the reality of evil, Shake Hands With the Devil touches on the unanswerable hows and whys, but its ultimate subject is the terrible burden of command. Dallaire’s self-doubt seems utterly genuine—he never gives the impression of performing for the cameras and we believe him when he says he doesn’t want to be seen as a hero, even if the movie seems hell-bent on valorizing him. Suggesting an array of possible villains—the Hutu militias, hate radio, the Belgian and French governments, the Catholic Church, the indifferent West—Shake Hands is less about one man than about a U.N. structurally incapable of carrying out its peacekeeping mandate, then and now. JOSHUA LAND


MOJADOS: THROUGH THE NIGHT

Directed by Tommy Davis

May 18 through 24, Two Boots Pioneer

A lean, effective slice of agitprop enlivened with a New Wave voice-over and an unusual emotional directness, Mojados follows four Mexican laborers on their 120-mile journey across and beyond the Texas line—a common trek made considerably more difficult since the U.S. Border Patrol implemented a new crackdown strategy in 1995. With officers concentrated in urban areas, migrants are now forced to hike through punishing conditions in the desert. Vérité footage of the men scrounging for puddle water, parceling their moldy bread, and scrambling over barbwire fences (often in night vision) is contrasted with black-and-white interviews of ranchers and patrol officers, who not unsympathetically recount stories of border-crossing attempts gone foul. Any documentary this intimate can’t help but call attention to the ethics involved in making it; lone-man crew Tommy Davis carried his own food and water during the filming, and one wonders whether he was ever prevailed upon to share. But Davis strives to keep himself out of the film, favoring a harrowing yet compassionate you-are-there aesthetic that underscores the hardship of the migrant workers’ struggles. BEN KENIGSBERG


STOLEN CHILDHOODS

Directed by Len Morris

Balcony, opens May 20, Quad

So well-intentioned it almost renders critical examination frivolous, this plea for global assistance—and unapologetic catalyst of liberal guilt—documents the plague of child labor, which afflicts 246 million children worldwide. Eschewing the character-driven precision of Born Into Brothels and the vérité focus of Children Underground, Len Morris’s exposé is no less horrifying for its infomercial pose, with narrator Meryl Streep in the Sally Struthers role. This globe-trotting overview of de facto slavery, jumping from Indonesian fishing platforms to Mexican sex-trafficking hubs, depicts these children as cogs of a global economy that provides our carpets and cappuccinos, and their factories as—according to Senator Tom Harkin—”breeding grounds for future terrorists.” Rather than blaming specific corporations, the progress-minded Stolen Childhoods highlights small-scale solutions, such as government programs that pay kids minimum wage to study, culminating in the attractive but overly idealistic proposal of a social Marshall Plan. As cinema, this is standard, on-the-nose PBS fluff, but it’s the grade school principal’s perfect guilt inducement tool for slackers who arrive late to class. AKIVA GOTTLIEB