Shooting Dogs (Beyond the Gates)
Shake Hands with the Devil (Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com) was a book that really opened my eyes to the terrible events in Rwanda, and shocked me into finding out more about what happened and why the UN and the world's governments did nothing. So I came to Shooting Dogs.
The belief of those that sought shelter there was that the UN forces would protect them by imposing the peace. However bureaucracy intervened as the troops were stationed there to monitor the peace, not to help impose it. As a result the UN troops were only allowed to fire on those attacking the Tutsi if they themselves were threatened.
This gave rise to the title of the film as the UN troops were allowed to fire upon the dogs scavenging on the bodies of the dead in the streets outside the ETO but not on those surrounding the school and threatening to kill the Tutsi who were there.
The film begins as the school goes about its normal business and we follow a new charity worker who has begun teaching there under the religion head of the school. Slowly we realise that behind the average life in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, there’s something menacing beginning, an organised genocide of the Tutsi population.
It begins quietly enough with the census of people in the country and roadblocks, but then escalates as the President’s plane is shot down at the airport and the President killed. From then on events are much more in the open as groups take to the street and begin murdering the Tutsi population, and the first group of refugees arrive at the ETO. The group grows as the violence intensifies, and the school is surrounded by a growing mob, armed and intent on killing the Tutsi should the UN step aside.
The first thing to say about the film is that it is extremely moving and manages to show portray the seriousness of the events without resorting to shocking images, purely on performances, tension and storyline. There are some tough images to see, but they aren’t deliberately used for emotional leverage, there’s a real sense of reporting events rather than sensationalising them with this film, and it really does focus on individuals, the people and the humanity of the situation.
John Hurt is extremely strong as Father Christopher, the leader of the school and he gives a wonderfully quiet performance. This is particularly strong during his crisis of faith and the film plays this out wonderfully in one particular scene with Marie played by Clare-Hope Ashitey, the female lead of the film, playing a Rwandan school girl with a crush on Joe Connor played by Hugh Dancy.
I was totally captivated by Hurt’s performance, with some moments giving rise to some strong emotions. He is utterly believable as a priest as well, which if you were to right that down on paper you might not think of him as an obvious choice, but he captures it perfectly. He seems a wonderfully warm and accepting man who is utterly shaken by the horror that he witnesses around him.
Hugh Darcy is also very strong as the young, idealistic volunteer teacher who believes that he can do some good in the country, and indeed is. However we watch his view of the world plunge and his idealisms shatter as the genocide begins to reveal itself to him.
His performance isn’t as quiet as John Hurt’s as his character does try to get more involved in the events and do some good, nor is it as natural and as settled. However it still is a great performance and he fits well into the film.
Watching the emergence of the horrors through his eyes, as he discovers them, works very well and the writing of the sequence of events makes the escalation seem all too real. It’s his witnessing of the events that really provides us with the understanding of the scale and horror of the genocide and of what is to happen to these refugees.
The story is superbly written and never does rely on clichés or utilising horrific shots. What is perhaps most impressive is that it covers so well a topic that is incredibly complex and that carries a lengthy history to it. Instead of becoming bogged down in the history and the explanation the film has the boldness to step away from trying to reason and understand the events and just tells them as they happen.
It manages to keep the focus clearly on those in and around the ETO without sacrificing the importance of the scale of the genocide and the overall story of the events in Rwanda. It also manages to keep a strong tie to people, rather than stepping back and showing the events on a larger scale and from the outside. You feel as though you are part of the group at the school, and there’s plenty to connect with and understand. Adding to that there’s the fact that the pace for the story is nigh on perfect. It never races ahead and builds the tension and emotion perfectly.
Now that doesn’t mean that I’m forgetting the direction, for Michael Caton-Jones does a fantastic job, and one of the best things that this production does is film in Rwanda itself, and even in the ETO grounds. There’s nothing too fancy with the style of filming, nothing detracts from the story itself and it does give you the feeling of being there and involved, and at times the style gives the feeling of reporting on events.
Some of the strength of the film is in what it doesn’t show, and this fine line is walked for the entirety of the film. We do see a couple of aftermath scenes but none are deliberately shocking or overly horrific. When we do see them it’s either from a very personal aspect and point of view or in the style of a news report.
Another great aspect of the film is that it doesn’t take sides and find people to blame, it seems to remain rather partisan. For instance one could find the UN to blame for the way they ultimately treated the Rwandan refugees, but it doesn’t take the cheap way out and present these characters in this two dimensional way, they are complex characters like all those in the film, and they are torn between what they believe as human beings and what they are ordered to do.
There is no real preaching in the film, again events are presented and you are shown and feel part of the human impact, the affect on the actual characters and people involved, and it always keeps focused on that view.
At times heartbreaking, others horrifying, and yet it also manages to surprise and uplift too. One thing above all is that it is a very emotional journey.
The picture is very natural, slight grain particularly at night, some strong visuals and use of colour in the film.
Dolby Digital 5.1
Makes good use of the rear speakers for ambient noises, there could have been much more done to pull you into the events but this is achieved through the story itself
Audio commentary from director Michael Caton-Jones, Audio commentary from writer David Wolstencroft and producer David Benton, 'The Making Of Shooting Dogs' featurette, Michael Caton-Jones and David Belton make a research visit to the ETO, Film-maker's diaries, Education material on the Rwandan genocide
Audio Commentary from Michael Caton-Jones
A strong commentary that looks at the filming in Rwanda and the work that went on behind the scenes to make it happen. The work that went into certain scenes, working with the people of Rwanda and survivors of the genocide, and the real events of that terrible time in recent history.
Audio Commentary from writer David Wolstencroft and producer David Benton
This is a real examination of the script and how the writing makes it to the final scenes as well as talking again of the real events that happened in Rwanda. It provides for some fascinating insights into the events in and around the ETO and about how to build the script up to the final work including some of the difficulties of getting the film made in Rwanda.
Making of Shootings Dogs featurette
More insight into the making of the film and the events behind it. There's some good on set information and some more behind the scenes information.
Michael Caton-Jones and David Belton make a research visit to the ETO
This is a very touching feature, it shows the writer and director making a trip to the very school in which the massacre took place and where the Tutsi sought refuge for so long.
Entries from the film-makers blog discuss the film and provide some great reading material and much more information on the film's development.
Education material on the Rwandan genocide
The educational material is a huge surprise and provides a wealth of information for those wanting to learn. Not only that but it has more structured learning and questions for use within more structured learning environments.
Shooting Dogs is a tough film to watch, not through the actual visual content, just through the story itself. However harrowing it may be though, it's also an extremely strong, educational, and emotional. If you want your cinema to make you feel and/or learn something rather than sitting there and letting a story wash over you, then this is a film for just that purpose, particularly on DVD.
The DVD offering provides so much more information and material that delves into the film, the behind the scenes, the development, as well as Rwanda and the genocide that has scarred its past.
The film itself is extremely moving and provides with very real and empathetic characters. It's very easy to identify with them and they choices they make, and believe that they are real. What you do struggle with is what they endure and what they accept for themselves and the others around them. I just can't imagine what they really went through, yet this film does a superb job of bringing you close to understanding just that.
It's a very powerful and wonderfully written film with great editing that really does back up the power of the script. There doesn't feel like there are any redundant scenes or that the film is at the wrong pace, it moves along and like those that were there, before you realise what is really happening it's already too late. I can honestly say that the ending of the film almost broke my heart.
The performances are superb, and not just from the expected lead of John Hurt, all the main characters are believable and at times compelling to watch. Together with the excellent script they bring powerful and emotional performances to life without any Hollywood convention. There's intelligence and compassion in the script and the characters, and that helps to make them so real and identifiable.
Once again it made me feel incredibly ashamed of the lack of concern of the government of my country, of other so called civilised countries, and of the UN itself. They should all feel ashamed, as should all those people that let this happen, including the audience. When you think about the film and the message it gives you realise once again just how uncaring governments really are and that they are focused more on monetary concerns than people's lives, and how hollow their words can really be.
I hope the UN, their hapless bunch of wordsmiths and those politicians who argued instead of taking action, take notice of these films and feel shamed enough that, if there ever is another such genocide wherever it may be, they will take some action and not just keep saying at each failure of humanity "never again".
One other thing that impressed me about this DVD is the wealth of information on it, and not just about the film itself, but about Rwanda, Africa, and the genocide. This provides a powerful learning resource for schools and colleges, not just a fantastic film.
Utterly compelling and required viewing without a doubt.