Talking to Director Roger Spottiswoode About "Shake Hands with the Devil" & "Beyond Right and Wrong"
I had a powerful interview with Director Roger Spottiswoode on two of his conscious media films, on the topics of the horrendous Rwandan genocides and the way justice and forgiveness was carried out by the Rwandan people.
Sylvia: I appreciated Shake Hands with the Devil for its authenticity. This type of accuracy and realism is not usual in Hollywood movies. How is the perspective of Rwandan genocide different in your film from what is shown in Hotel Rwanda? Why was it so important to you to stay true to what actually happened and how did you accomplish it?
Roger: Shake Hands is accurate, we showed the front of the Hotel Mille Colline and we actually showed the Ghanain troops outside Hotel Rwanda. The other is not what happened. I think it’s important that a film about real events and real people should be accurate.
It was UN troops, 99% of whom were African, and Dallaire and a few other Canadians, all of whom believe in protecting the innocent, who tried to protect the Tutsi's. These 4000, or 5000 men protected the 35,000 Tutsi’s who came to them for safety. They survived. The UN is constantly maligned as ineffective and useless. It happened to be Clinton who insisted that the UN not interfere in the genocide, a fact which he lives with every day.
I think creating false accounts of history is wrong. Feeding false narratives can be extremely damaging to society, as the last four years have again demonstrated. I believe film makers have a moral responsibility when making films about real events to be honest about what they make.
Shake Hands with the Devil was based on Dallaire’s memoir, and on several other of the published accounts of the genocide that we used to verify Dallaire’s account, which itself had been carefully fact checked. We also went through the details of the script with Dallaire before filming.
During production, we had one of his officers who had been present with him during the genocide on set during preparation and the filming of every scene. We knew what, if anything, was inaccurate about all of it. The main discrepancy was that our piles of bodies were never as large as the real ones, except in the scene in the church. It is extremely difficult to get sometimes hundreds of people into realistic make up, with missing limbs and stay still for several hours while we filmed. It was also traumatic for the people playing the dead, often Hutu by the way. We had therapists with us at all times to help them. We also had a rule which was posted in full view that anyone who found it too difficult to continue, could leave at their own choice and be paid in full anyway. Some people did leave, were paid and our production was considered extremely proper and appropriate. As I mentioned earlier in Rwanda, General Dallaire is considered the only White person who really cared about Rwanda.
Sylvia: Then 5-years later you produce the documentary, Beyond Right and Wrong: Stories of Justice and Forgiveness, which tells stories of unimaginable forgiveness around these types of horrendous crimes. What drew you to this subject matter?
Roger: While making Shake Hands, I became aware that there were Gacacas [justice on the grass] going on all the time. I learnt about them, what form they took, the rules the government suggested they follow, and I was fascinated by the process of Reconciliation and Forgiveness. After the genocide, some 125,000 people who were known to have participated in the murder during the genocide were imprisoned. During the next few years, they were processed through a European legal system which had been introduced by Belgium, the country which had ‘colonized’ Rwanda for a century or so.
The process was slow and ineffective. Many lawyers and judges were already in prison having participated in the murders. So Rwanda changed systems and used what had been in place before the Belgians arrived to deliver justice with communities. The template for the new Gacacas that started around 1998 was that each community, or village, or town, would close down for a day or two to try each of the accused who were brought from prison to be ’tried.’ Gacaca’s means ‘On the grass’. The town would gather in a field, having appointed a dozen or so ‘wise people’, young and old to be the judges.
Each accused would have to explain what they did, apologize convincingly that they understood how wrong it was, they would have to name each and every person they had murdered (almost always the dead were friends or neighbors of the killers) and they would have to explain in detail where the bodies were. So many people vanished that this was a huge issue. Bodies were often thrown into wells and never found.
If the audience and the judges were convinced that the murders were telling the truth and genuinely sorry for what they did, the national government advised the community that the guilty should be forgiven and after a short time in prison, because they had already been in prison 5 or more years, they should be released. The ‘forgiven’ would have to return to the same village where the murders had occurred. They were expected to ‘restore any damage done to those they had murdered. If they had destroyed their home (which often happened during the genocide) the forgiven had to rebuild it. This was ‘restorative justice.’ It took place all over Rwanda. Eventually about 110,000 were released. Occasionally people would lie to the judges, and usually people in the village would call them out. Those were returned to prison for a few more years.
Years later, Lekha Singh, a philanthropist who had visited Rwanda many times and had donated considerable funds towards a Women’s Health Center, approached me about making a film about Rwanda and the process of forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation. I was very happy to do so, but thought that a film entirely about this subject set in Rwanda might be dismissed too easily as an aberration that would only happen in Africa. I suggested we include Israel, Palestine, and Northern Ireland, each country where people felt that what had happened to them was completely unforgivable, and discover whether there were similarities.
Sylvia: What do you hope people understand after watching these 2 films?
Roger: That Forgiveness is the only way the injured can regain their lives and become ‘whole’ again. What I also learnt was that the ‘forgiven’ have an even more difficult journey. Once forgiven, they must learn to live with what they’ve done for the rest of their lives. That’s an incredibly difficult burden to carry.
Watch Beyond Right and Wrong on AC + Amazon Prime or Sundance + Amazon Prime, Doc Club + Amazon Prime. TRAILER
Watch Shake Hands with the Devil on Tubi or purchase DVD.