Shake Hands with the Devil

SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL, starring Roy Dupuis. WRITTEN by Romeo Dallaire (book) and Michael Donovan. DIRECTED by Roger Spottiswoode. Opened Sept. 28, 2007.
Reviewed by Donald Goertz.

Romeo Dallaire has emerged as a modern Canadian hero. His leadership of the United Nations forces in Rwanda in 1994 is a source of national pride. He has also emerged as a national conscience. But, having said that, why would anyone willingly subject themselves to watching the unfolding horror that was Rwanda for 100 days in 1994? Why would anyone want to remember the slaughter of 800,000-1,000,000 people? Why not do today what most North Americans did at the time, tune in to our equivalent of the O. J. Simpson trial?

Let me suggest a very simple reason. The movie, which is shot in Rwanda on the very locations where the actions depicted occurred, is a powerful depiction of choices forced upon people. A wide variety of leaders are portrayed or referenced and the way that they responded to the unfolding crisis is an instructive piece for anyone interested in the art of moral leadership from a Kingdom perspective.

Dallaire arrived in the country as Force Commander of UNAMIR, a United Nations peacekeeping operation, to monitor a shaky peace. The movie plays out the paradox of stunning natural beauty and the unfolding horror. Very quickly decisions needed to be made. The United Nations and the leadership of the big powers, such as Great Britain and America, were not prepared for the possibility of another Mogadishu, the sight the bodies of their elite troops being dragged behind vehicles on the red African soil. As Bill Clinton remarked, there were simply not enough American interests at stake.

Finally, the decision was made to withdraw the UNAMIR Force. As a military man dedicated to obeying orders and chains of command, Dallaire realized that he was faced with his most defining moment. He responded to the UN order by refusing to leave.

As the movie unfolds, we watch Dallaire’s schooling in a whole new understanding of leadership. Deprived of a military mandate he could not send his troops into combat. Even worse, he did not have the resources for any type of intervention. There were not enough bullets, fuel, or military hardware for any type of response. The weapons were strictly for show. This meant that almost everything that he had learned about leadership needed to be set aside. The confidence he once had, rooted in his command, slowly faded and we see him wrestling with how to make sense of an increasingly narrow UN mandate. As the bodies pile up, we see his confusion turn to despair. As a Catholic the struggle is intense.

Once he grasps that power has been stripped from him and that all of his traditional means of effecting change were gone, he moves to a profoundly Christlike model. Out of this position of powerlessness he set out to save as many lives as possible and to exercise at least some influence on the international community. The great moments in the movie continually depict him wrestling with his context and then resolutely walking out the door with nothing but his own integrity to try to stop some new horror. The drama of his encounters with the Hutu militants is worth the price of admission many times over. He simply places himself in the middle of a conflict and responds to what unfolds. The power of moral leadership is caught most dramatically in a Gethsemane like scene where Dallaire, having gone ahead of his body guards, encounters a militant sent to assassinate him. Not recognizing Dallaire, he asks where he could find the General in order to kill him. After a profound moment in which they have a wordless encounter, the General simply says, "I am Dallaire." After another moment, he offers his hand to the man who shakes it and leaves.

A further key element of leadership emerges in Dallaire’s decision to disobey the order to withdraw. It is leader as witness and storyteller. Dallaire quickly came to understand that as a leader he had a moral responsibility to stay, if for no other reason than to provide a witness to the genocide. Someone needed to be able to tell the story and then keep it alive. The world too easily forgets Africa. This has become the key reason for his continued involvement with the story over the years and for the production of this movie. He refused Hollywood financing because he was not willing to massage the story for ratings. Fortunately the funding came together and the movie was produced. This commitment to the story is still alive in Dallaire’s testifying at the current war crimes trials of Desire Munyaneza in Montreal. When asked outside the trial why he chose to relive the horror, Dallaire spoke of it as an act of duty for him as a citizen of Canada and the world.

Dallaire found himself in a context full of ambiguity where none of the old paradigms applied. In this context he embraced his powerlessness and began to lead out of it. It was this which provided his moral authority and makes him an instructive voice to all of us who are wrestling with what moral leadership looks like in our time and place. I highly recommend this movie to all.