A certain death

Film - Rwanda's horror is seen with an unflinching eye

<strong>Shooting Dogs </strong>(15)

In the dying minutes of Shooting Dogs, the director, Michael Caton-Jones, intercuts his meticulously recreated story of the Rwandan massacre with news footage of a US state department press conference from 1994. More than 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis, were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbours between April and July, yet the US spokeswoman Christine Shelley is shown refusing to apply the term "genocide" to the first wave of ethnic cleansing. "Is it true that you have specific guidance not to use the word 'genocide' in isolation," a re-porter asks, "but always to preface it with the words 'acts of'?" "I have guidance which I try to use as best as I can," Shelley replies. "I don't have an absolute categorical prescription against something, but I have the definitions. I have phraseology which has been carefully examined and arrived at as best as we can . . ."

Phraseology. Definitions. Categorical prescriptions. The slippery bureaucratic language contrasts with the horror of the previous two hours: the bodies strewn across dusty roads in Kigali; the terror in the eyes of a Tutsi mother trying to hide with her crying child; the hate-speech pouring from the radio. Shooting Dogs aims to high-light this contrast: the world might have averted its gaze at the time, but this film makes it impossible to look away again.

Based on a script by the former BBC reporter David Belton, Shooting Dogs centres on the prelude to the killing of 2,500 Tutsis who sought shelter at Kigali's École Technique Officielle when the genocide started, hoping to benefit from the presence of UN peacekeeping forces. The story is told from the perspective of a Catholic priest, Father Christopher (John Hurt), the guiding hand behind the school and a man whose three decades in Africa have made him a realist but not a cynic. Hurt naturally looks like someone who has spent 30 years in the sun, baked like clay but not hardened inside, still capable of loving the land and its people. His sidekick is Joe (Hugh Dancy), an idealistic British teacher following the gap-year dream of "giving something back", but rapidly finding himself out of his depth.

Beyond the school's gates, the gathering violence is palpable. When Christopher goes into town, the obligatory shots of produce stalls and bustling streets are made sinister through the presence of bureaucrats listing Tutsi addresses. Later, an overly polite councillor comes to visit the school, expressing interest in the number of UN troops. The veneer of peace finally shatters when artillery thunders in the distance and news that President Habyarimana has died in a plane crash - a suspected coup - comes through on the radio. With one dramatic shot, Caton-Jones throws the political murk and abstract panic into Technicolor relief as truck headlights cut through the darkness to show hundreds of Tutsis thronging the school gates, desperately seeking protection.

Even as the Interahamwe gather outside the makeshift refugee camp, the official word games begin. Waving machetes and blowing whistles, the Hutus clearly aren't there to exchange ideas, but the UN captain Charles Delon (Dominique Horwitz) is impotent, reduced to repeating: "We do not have a mandate." His grandparents, he says, sheltered Jews during the Second World War - but he must obey the orders of a western power squirming away from responsibility. When ten Belgian soldiers are murdered, the troops are evacuated and, in the film's most harrowing scene, the trucks roll out, leaving the Tutsis to a certain death.

Unlike Hotel Rwanda (2004), Shooting Dogs was shot in Kigali and the geography plays a significant role in generating stark fear: the oddly deserted streets, the bodies in the undergrowth, the humidity and dust. It is full of prickling moments of evil: the storeholder who asks if the medicine that Father Chris-topher urgently requests is for a Hutu or a Tutsi baby; the councillor showing his true colours as the UN forces withdraw ("Let the work begin!"). This is Rwanda's Killing Fields - a hideous story observed with an unflinching eye.

Shooting Dogs has been accused of traumatising survivors with its reconstructions. But as the director has pointed out, Rwandans live with that horror every day. Similarly, some might take issue with the film being told from a white perspective: Belton admits he was partly motivated to write it by guilt that he left the country too early. Yet while the film highlights the terrible culpability of the United Nations, it is not merely a pat on the conscience. There are some brutally frank lines - Joe admitting that he sometimes felt as if he was starring in his own Oxfam ad; the world-weary BBC journalist Rachel (played by Nicola Walker) speaking of how, although she cried every day in Bosnia, thinking each dead woman could be her mother, here "they're just dead Africans". Ultimately, Joe and Christopher are not in Rwanda as noble Europeans, muscling in on its misery. They are there as access points, forcing audiences to confront the truth rather than switching over or switching off.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes Special