Shooting Dogs

By Michael Caton-Jones

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« This film is based on real events and shot on the same spot where they happened ». This warning at the beginning of the film finds an echo before the final credits where pictures of the laughing faces of the film’s Rwandan colleagues scrolled down, who themselves have lost most of their family in the genocide, sometimes even in the same conditions that are described here. We are then in a reality legitimated by the actors themselves, that of the historical reconstruction on the spot, with those who have lived through it. And yet…
Using the ingredients of actions films and even war films (suspense, permanently threatening scenes behind closed doors, a pure-hearted character determined to sacrifice himself, heroic risk-taking, displays of horror, the assailants’ wild brutality), Shooting Dogs puts the spectator in a state of permanent shock. « Move people to make them understand », says Caton-Jones. But what type of emotion for what kind of understanding? It is efficient, the tension does not leave us, given that the episodes are smugly orchestrated for it to work. Nothing is out of place, everyone has a stereotyped role: the UN troops’ captain who is impervious to the requests to go beyond the orders of non-intervention; the French major who comes across as horrible by refusing to evacuate the Rwandans; the priest embodied by John Hurt, shocked by the horror but still confident about God’s love for his children despite the mistakes they may have made; the journalists who are only present when white people are involved; the Interhamwe (= « those who hit together »), a mob of blood-thirsty drug addicts.
By taking two white men for the main characters, a young idealistic teacher who « having been spoilt all his youth comes back to Rwanda to say thank you » and a catholic priest, the film only touches lightly on politics (the writing of the lists of Tutsis who are to be killed, the involvement of the local authoritires in the genocide) to place itself on a deliberately sentimental ground, rearticulating the two dominants of the western discourse on the genocide: desperation and guilt. The « I’m sorry »s of the young teacher and the captain sound like declarations of helplessness, reinforced by the American administration’s refusal to call the genocide by its name, which would have enabled the UN troops to intervene. For Caton-Jones, making this film is a way of asking for forgiveness. « Why do Westerners spend all their time asking for forgiveness? », Sembène Ousmane once asked me during an interview. « In whose name? I tell Africans: you can forgive but you can’t forget. It’s the Western culture of absolution that pushes people to ask for forgiveness ».
Placing the representation of the genocide on a sentimental level denies its singularity and prepares for it to be forgotten or even negated. Favouring emotion and dramatization boils down to neglecting politics and History, that is what allows us to understand the causes and thus helps to avoid the stuttering of the unbearable which are still to be feared in various countries, notably in Ivory Coast. Taking the genocide as a subject needs to involve re-examining memory and not an obligation to commemorate. But in order to go from morals to History, it is necessary to accept the complexity and avoid clichés.
Caton-Jones’s choice of sordidness, not hesitating to pan across the bloody bodies after the massacres, after having shown their brutal cruelty, seems to me deeply reprehensible, not in its desire to testify but because it is only linked to compassion: The emotion it appeals to does not depend on revelation or awareness (that’s already done), it makes us regress towards a fascination for violence, this fascination which comes from our fear of what humans are capable of doing. Here, I am referring to this human beast that eternally resurfaces if we do not fight against racism and discrimation, against barbarity. This is the real subject, or even lesson, that is to be drawn from the genocide: how racism was able to emerge in the midst of a community who shared the same origins, god and language, to the point to which a majority of them labelled the minority inyenzi (roaches) to orchestrate their extermination. Shooting Dogs does not touch on this subject for a second, preferring to spend its time quibbling about the despair that fear triggers before horror. Perhaps would it have been more relevant if it had taken for subject what it wanted to expose, that is the American administration’s hypocrisy which prevented the blue helmets from intervening, for reasons of vocabulary, instead of confronting it with the facts; or the terribly ambiguous attidude of the French (but that would probably not be very well accepted, coming from a foreigner), that is by exploring the complexity and the flaws of the western prism in its intervention in Africa and in its point of view about the continent.

Translated by Céline Dewaele.///Article N° : 5942


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