When Hitler got his collaborators together and proposed the genocide of Jews, one of the things he said to justify the act was that before long the world will forget the whole thing. He is famed for having cited the example of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1917, in which around a million people were estimated to have been killed) and said that after all, no one remembered such a thing had happened, so how different could it be this time around?
It seems that the same logic applied to the instigators of the Rwandan genocide. Indeed, one remark by a soldier in “Shooting Dogs,” just before he takes a machete to a victim’s head, says as much: “No one will remember you existed.”
The point of films like “Shooting Dogs” and the earlier “Hotel Rwanda” is less about how well they’re made than the fact that they’re there: that they get on the international film distribution circuit, or that such films continue to be made, again and again. So what if these movies aren’t hardcore documentaries? If entertainment value is what it takes to get audiences to see them, then I cast my vote to entertainment.
This especially goes for “Shooting Dogs,” directed by entertainment artisan Michael Caton-Jones, who has made works as diverse as “Basic Instinct 2″ and “Rob Roy.” Caton-Jones takes a craftsman’s approach to the story, and doesn’t let himself cave under the enormous weight of this fact: In 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in the space of 100 days.
In many ways, “Shooting Dogs” displays a surreal insensitivity and a typical Hollywood handling of real-life filth — the interior shots are defined by a pristine orderliness, everyone looks as if they had showered that morning and the Europeans depicted here are annoyingly well-groomed. Still, it’s impossible not to come away with nerves in tatters. Caton-Jones keeps an emotional distance. There was probably no other way to go about it.
Based on true-life locations and the life of a Bosnian priest who had been one of two white clergymen to remain in Rwanda after every other Westerner had evacuated, “Shooting Dogs” opens with the news that the president has been killed in a plane crash. There are rumors of a coup, which quickly escalates to a mass wave of ethnic cleansing, underscored by a feud that had continued between Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis for centuries. Hutu extremists seize the upper hand by installing road blocks, closing public facilities and taking to the streets with machetes and lists containing the addresses and names of Tutsis. Some 2,500 Tutsis take refuge in a local technical school run by the idealistic Father Christopher (John Hurt) and the well-intended young British teacher Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy). Both strive to save their neighbors, their students and families, but they’re ultimately helpless; the most chilling scene is when Father Christopher finally leaves the school (he’s the last white man to go, and the last vestige of hope for these people) in a truck. Even before the dust from the wheels have cleared, Hutu extremists (who had all been waiting at the gates with machetes and cleavers) are given the command to “let the work begin!”
“Shooting Dogs” was partly written and produced by BBC news reporter David Belton. In 1994, he had been in Rwanda to report on the massacre and was helped by the Bosnian priest who inspired the story. Eventually Belton got out of Rwanda when the atrocities threatened to extend to the whites. He learned later that the priest was murdered. What surfaces throughout the story is Belton’s sense of guilt at having abandoned the country and its people and his deep frustration at having been powerless to “make a difference,” an oft-repeated phrase in the dialogue.
Connor, however, is not Belton’s alter ego. Of all the characters here, he seems to be the least substantial and is perhaps meant to be so; an amalgam of all the Westerners who, with the best intentions, fled Rwanda, not least of all the U.N. peacekeeping forces. In the story, a Belgian unit based at the school is given orders to shoot the dogs eating the corpses from genocide (“it’s a health risk!”) but they do nothing to stop the Hutu militia from producing corpses by the score. Once seen, “Shooting Dogs” isn’t likely to be forgotten, and that’s exactly what it aims for.