John Hurt, Hugh Dancy, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Dominique Horwitz
Winner of the grand prize of $100,000 at the 2006 Heartland Film Festival, "Shooting Dogs" is one of several recent films, most notably "Hotel Rwanda," to attempt to remove the veil of denial surrounding the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Set inside the Ecole Technique Officialle, an actual Rwandan school where 2,500 Rwandans were massacred shortly after the U.N. pulled out, "Shooting Dogs" is based upon the true story of the events leading up to the Ecole massacre including the efforts of a Catholic Priest, Father Christopher (John Hurt) to protect the Rwandans, the refusal of U.N. soldiers stationed at the school to protect them due to their mandate to "monitor" peace, and the struggles of one schoolteacher (Hugh Dancy) caught in the crossfire of courage and fear.
Sadly, one of the most significant weaknesses of "Shooting Dogs" lies in the lack of focus on the Rwandans themselves. With the exception of a young girl named Marie, the film largely places the Rwandans in the one-dimensional role of victims of the militias or seemingly subservient to their white protectors.
Despite this lack of depth for Rwandan characters, director Michael Caton-Jones ("Basic Instinct 2") does take the story a step beyond that offered in "Hotel Rwanda." While "Hotel Rwanda" offered an intense, yet fairly sanitized look at the genocide, "Shooting Dogs" is an often uncomfortably graphic look at the hate-filled violence that plagued the nation in 1994. While we have intellectually known that women and children were commonly hacked to death, Caton-Jones brings these images and events to life with authenticity and still a degree of sensitivity to the victims.
David Wolstencroft's script also doesn't hesitate to lay blame...not just on the unconscionable response of the United Nations, but the apathy of the United States and other nations in turning a blind eye to the goings on in this far away nation. Even one reporter acknowledges feeling less impacted by the events, largely because these people are Africans and, therefore, "different."
As the priest struggling with his devotion to God, humanity and himself, John Hurt captures powerfully the mixed emotions of a man devoted to a humanity that suddenly seems to betray everything he believes. Scenes of him offering mass even as the world around him crumbles are filled with an almost eerie blend of spiritual celebration and human resignation.
Dancy, on the other hand, seems clearly overwhelmed by the material at hand and often is outshined by even the supporting Rwandan actors around him, particularly Claire-Hope Ashitey as Marie. In the quieter, more serene scenes Dancy is able to shine, however, when he is called to rise to the occasion he falls into a one-note performance of righteous rage.
Production design for "Shooting Dogs" is stellar, however, this is to be expected as the film is set on the actual location of the events that unfolded. Additionally, as the closing credits reveal, multiple members of the Rwandan production crew are themselves survivors of the genocide and, thus, their insight into production design, costuming and the atmosphere itself creates an undeniably haunting look and feel for the motion picture.
"Shooting Dogs" has been optioned for distribution by IFC under the name "In Every Human Heart" with an actual U.S. release date pending. The BBC production is reportedly already available on DVD in England.
"Shooting Dogs" is a more historically accurate, yet less cinematically satisfying look at the events that unfolded in Rwanda during 1994. In focusing his lens primarily on the lives of a white priest and a white teacher, Caton-Jones has left behind the most powerful stories of all...a world that ignored the plight of so many, the ability of a nation to turn on its own and, perhaps most powerfully, the ability of the Rwandan people who survived to speak their truths so powerfully, honestly and eloquently.
Richard's Note: This film screened at Heartland Film Festival under the name "Shooting Dogs" before its arthouse release under the name "Beyond the Gates."
|© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic