April 1994: As the fever from the Winter Olympics was finally cooling down, most media outlets were too busy shoving Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan down our throats to bother mentioning the small African country of Rwanda. Yet in the two months that followed, nearly a million Rwandans would lie dead in the streets from violence between the native Hutu and Tutsi people---leaving behind roughly 100,000 children without parents. During this time, Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire (above) was placed in charge of a UN-backed peacekeeping force that would hopefully put an end to this genocide. He asked for 5,000 troops to promote order and establish elections to replace assassinated Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana. Among other things, he needed manpower and money. Unfortunately, he got very little of either.
How could this happen? How could over 800,000 people die in one country---in less than three months, mind you---and be generally ignored by most media sources? Since it's impossible to change the past, the best way to learn from such tragedies is to hear about them firsthand. Fortunately, the now-retired Lieutenant General is still on hand to offer his personal reflections in Shake Hands With The Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire (2004). Filmed during his first return trip to Rwanda---ten years after the violent genocide---Dallaire is reverent and reflective as he travels the countryside with director Peter Raymont and crew. Intercut with actual news footage and photos from 1994, Shake Hands With The Devil shows us not only the dangers of violence, but the dangers of ignoring it.
Most could never comprehend what it must feel like to witness so much death and be powerless to stop it. It's certainly taken a toll on Dallaire, who's been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder since his 1994 return. He's even attempted suicide several times since then. He's spoken openly about the Rwandan genocide to anyone who'll listen, but the recent publication of his book (of the same name) has perhaps been the strongest outlet so far. This documentary pushes his cause further, adding a much-needed visual element to a country that's been ignored for so long. Dallaire speaks quietly, in a much more soft-spoken manner than his tough, chiseled features would indicate. The streets are much different now---no longer littered with bodies as they were in mid-1994---yet the horrific scenes are still fresh in Dallaire's mind. Through his actions, he shows that one man might not be able to save a country...but any response is more noble than none at all.
Director Peter Raymont plays it smart by playing it straight. The camera is never intrusive to Dallaire's quest, giving us a real "fly on the wall" perspective of his return trip to the country. Though it's light on straightforward voice-over narrative, one can't help being reminded of Alain Resnais' landmark film Night And Fog (1955), an exploration of former Nazi concentration camps some 10 years after the Holocaust. As in Resnais' film, we see personal reflection combined with disturbing footage as it originally unfolded...but it's the long periods of silence that bring the real weight to the story. It may be a tough film to watch at times, but Dallaire's message is loud and clear: events as tragic as this should never be ignored. In short, Shake Hands With The Devil is required viewing.
Although it's made a generally quick trip to DVD, Shake Hands With The Devil is still a little tough to find for interested Americans. Though it's now available through several Canadian online retailers---in fact, the DVD cover's hyperlink (top right) will take you to Amazon.ca---no release date has been set for the U.S. as of this review, though I'll provide an update when the time comes. Don't let anything stop you from seeking this one out, though: Microfilms has done a terrific job with this DVD, offering a fine technical presentation and a host of invaluable bonus features. It's one of the most well-rounded releases for the documentary genre so far this year---easily worth the extra effort it might take to bring this one home. Still, if you need more proof, read on.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Although most documentaries offer bland visual presentations, I was quite impressed with the overall quality of Shake Hands With The Devil. Presented in a pleasing 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, this digitally-shot film really looked terrific. Colors are bold and bright, and image detail is quite good for much of the film's newer outdoor footage. The only minor nitpicks include a bit of digital combing and a notable amount of jagged edges in some shots, but it's nothing major. Though a generous portion of the film's 1994-era news footage and photographs is a bit rougher around the edges, this is a very good presentation overall.
The audio quality is a touch closer to your typical documentary, though it's still quite a good effort. Presented in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround, all of the most important bases were covered: clear dialogue, strong music, and even a notable amount of ambience. While the majority of the sound came from the front channels, the nature of most documentaries don't require a very complex audio presentation. The only disappointment is the lack of English subtitles.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
The fullscreen menu designs (seen above) are simple and elegant, offering smooth navigation and nice layout. The 91-minute film has been neatly divided into 20 chapters, and no layer change was detected during playback. Covered in more detail below, all related bonus materials have been presented in either 1.33:1 fullscreen or 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen aspect ratios. The disc is housed in a standard black keepcase, with stunning cover artwork and a nice description of all included material. Also included is a handy insert booklet, complete with a director's statement and a few reproductions of several key historical documents.
It's always nice to get a set of bonus features that compliment such a strong film. Things start off right with a pair of Audio Commentaries---the first with director/producer Peter Raymont, and the second with Toronto movie critic Geoff Pevere. The former is obviously a bit more of a technical affair, though the director's organized comments are very reflective as well. Pevere adds a lively layer to the mix, offering a more analytical track laced with historical tidbits. Though it would have been especially nice to hear from Dallaire himself, this pair of commentaries are very much worth a listen. There's also a short Reel To Real Interview with the director (8 minutes), which doesn't go much deeper than his commentary but includes a few comments about the film's genesis.
Next up is an Excerpt Reading from his book by Roméo Dallaire himself, taped for the 2004 Governor General's Awards (seen above, 5 minutes). There's also an alternate, abridged French Version of the film itself, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with burnt-in subtitles (52 minutes). A Photo Gallery is next, offering either an index of 30+ images or a slideshow with commentary by DP Peter Bregg. Lastly, there's a handy Resources Section with a suggested filmography and bibliography of related material, as well as a Preview Gallery for other releases in Microfilms' Document Collection (including the excellent Horns and Halos and The Cola Conquest). All in all, this was an informative assortment of bonus features that really supported this film well.
When a mainstream DVD lives up to all the hype, that's one thing. When a lesser-known DVD comes out of nowhere and blows you away---well, that's another matter entirely, isn't it? Overall, Shake Hands With The Devil is easily one of 2005's strongest documentaries on disc, successfully combining a thought-provoking film with a generous assortment of quality bonus features. Of course, the terrific technical presentation---especially in the video department---is only icing on the cake. Whether you buy it now from a Canadian online retailer or wait for an American release, this is one documentary that's really worth looking out for. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.