Magazine article The Spectator

Shamed and Horrified

Magazine article The Spectator

Shamed and Horrified

Article excerpt

Shooting Dogs 15, selected cinemas

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada 15, selected cinemas

Having made a waspish comment about John Hurt's acting a few weeks ago, I ought now to give credit where it's due: his is a restrained, authoritative performance in Shooting Dogs. He plays Father Christopher, in whose Catholic school in Kigali 2,500 Tutsis take shelter as the Rwandan massacres of 1994 begin. They are protected by the presence of UN soldiers, whose mandate is to monitor (rather than maintain) the peace, but whose continuing presence is not assured. Inside the school grounds, Father Christopher and Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy) argue with each other and with the Belgian UN officer. Outside the school gates, the waiting gang of Hutu grows into a yelling, chanting mob -- an unofficial army of executioners.

It is an appalling, horrifying story, and one sits in appalled, horrified stupefaction as it unfolds. An auditorium full of shocked faces, staring aghast at a representation of true events. To sit stupefied seems an uncomfortable Western privilege. Didn't we do it 12 years ago, in front of the news?

A mood of deep gloom, on leaving the cinema, is thus exacerbated by feelings of shame and regret. Shooting Dogs is an upsetting film; to watch it is a difficult experience (one that everyone should probably undergo). But it should be more than this.

Joe is the character with whom we are expected to identify: a teacher, posh and good-natured, whose bewilderment turns to outrage and then terror. He reassures his pet pupil, Marie: as long as you're here, you're safe. Then he falls back: as long as the BBC camera is here, you're safe. And finally, with less certainty: as long as the UN is here, you're safe. A world of vanishing barriers. Marie, of course, knows more than he does. She is listening to the radio, from which a voice coaxes Hutu civilians to help the army with their 'work', ridding Rwanda of the Tutsi 'cockroaches'. But we never really hear from Marie.

The film cannot help but be limited by its exclusively Western perspective. Joe, Father Christopher, the UN officer and Rachel (a BBC reporter) are the characters given a significant voice. The Tutsis are given little to say beyond expressions of fear or gratitude. Hutu motivation is left to rest after a few brief remarks from the school's Hutu groundsman, François. He says diffidently to Joe, 'We have to defend ourselves. …

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