Monday, May 15, 2006

Guest Post: Shooting Dogs

With Darfur back in the news these days, it seems like a good time to revisit the lessons of another similar situation not so long ago. So last week I sat down to watch the aptly-named movie Shooting Dogs, which recounts the early days of the massacre (the genocide that dare not speak its name) in Rwanda, when nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in what might be the fastest ethnic purge ever to rage across a nation.

Shot by a largely Rwandan crew (many of whom were survivors of the incidents recounted in the film), the story is seen through the eyes of a British missionary and a wide-eyed college grad who is volunteering as an English teacher before the heady days when a coup brought down the president's plane, setting off the reign of bloodshed that lasted from April 19 to July of the same year. The next two hours loosely follows the events at the Ecole Technique Officielle, a school that was coincidentally housing a UN contingent of peace monitors and became a refugee camp for 2500 Tutsis seeking shelter from the massacres. The visuals are stunning and leave no room to avoid the reality of what murder by machete means - if you close your eyes, you still hear the thwack of blade hitting flesh, and the way screams go silent when a particularly important artery is severed. This movie should be shown in every high school classroom and college freshman political science class; it should be required watching for any foreigner who has any opinion at all on geopolitics in Africa.

But. (There is always a "but," isn't there?) Something is missing from the film, something that might be called context, something that might be called truth, something that might be called a reality check.

The focus on two white characters over a cast of a couple thousand Rwandans can be forgiven. After all, if this movie is meant to tell an untold story, it might as well aim to draw in the European/North American demographic - it's not like Rwandans need genocide explained to them. And it might be forgiven that Hugh Dancy's character - the young British teacher - seems to have nothing to add to the film besides the unerring ability to look handsomely devastated in his five o'clock shadow and his unlikely clean clothes even days into the crisis.

But there are some problems that a little harder to forgive. Chief among those is the glaring absence of context for the massacres - that the historic Hutu/Tutsi tension was fatally exacerbated by the European colonial powers that used divide-and-conquer tactics to control the populace at large. That the missionary presence - so exalted in this film - has never been a panacea for locals in any imperial port of call. That while wild-eyed machete-wielding Africans were making headlines, weapons firms out of the UK and several other nations were quietly shipping arms to the Hutu militias. That the massacres were not a populist uprising gone out of control, but a planned ethnic cleansing carefully orchestrated from the upper echelons of the Hutu-dominated government.

And most of all, that the depiction of heroic deeds on the part of the European characters are at best a work of fiction, and at worst a sorry attempt to claim some redemption in a situation where the UN and every one of its member states failed miserably to intervene when the consequence of inaction were brutally and unavoidably apparent.

The danger of this decontextualization is not so much that an inaccurate history might be passed into the pantheon of Hollywood half-truths, pasted up next to Schindler's List and Hotel Rwanda on the roster of valiant deeds during tough times. The danger is that without any larger backdrop, the massacres look like exactly what your garden-variety racist would like to see: crazy Africans hacking to death other Africans. An internal problem. An impolite cultural flaw. A momentary lapse that reveals a fundamental incivility among, well, those people. Without the context of the decades of imperial rule, the machinations of a political system that was gunning for racial annihilation, and those pesky arms shipments from Europe, Shooting Dogs makes the Rwandan genocide look like just another uncivil moment in the proverbial heart of darkness that western nations love to ascribe to Africa and Africans.

If there is one redeeming moment, it is a startlingly honest dialogue between the young school teacher and a BBC reporter who has come to gather cinematic evidence of the murders. The reporter, a white woman, tells the school teacher how she can continue to witness such brutality in conflict after bloody conflict and still keep going. He replies with the inevitable cliche that she has just become numb to the violence.

No, she replies, It's worse than that.

In Bosnia, she says, every elderly woman could have been my grandmother.

Here, she says, they're just dead Africans.

And in four words, she captures the sentiment that drove the UN and the world into total inaction when action was needed most: they're just dead Africans. In times of war, times of pestilence, times of famine: they're just dead Africans. In Rwanda, in Somalia, and now in Darfur. They're just dead Africans.