When Hollywood films got the 1994 Genocide wrong

Shooting Dogs has attracted its fair share of criticism, especially from genocide survivors who know better. What seems particularly offensive about this movie is a particular scene where a white Roman Catholic priest decides to stay with the refugees, rather than be evacuated along with his expatriate colleagues.
 Pamela Nomvete in Sometimes in April. Net photo
Pamela Nomvete in Sometimes in April. Net photo

Shooting Dogs has attracted its fair share of criticism, especially from genocide survivors who know better. What seems particularly offensive about this movie is a particular scene where a white Roman Catholic priest decides to stay with the refugees, rather than be evacuated along with his expatriate colleagues.

A bevy of Hollywood movies have attempted to capture the 1994 Rwanda genocide: Hotel Rwanda (2004), Shooting Dogs (2005), and Sometimes In April (2005), among others. And each movie tries to out do itself in portraying a unique human story out of the events of the genocide.

Hotel Rwanda features Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, the Hutu manager of a Kigali hotel where more than 1,200 people survived the killings taking place outside. Rusesabagina used his influence as a prominent Hutu businessman to shelter more than 1,200 people, using his phone to fax Bill Clinton and call the King of Belgium and the French Foreign Ministry. It was filmed in South Africa.

This is one of the better-known movies about the genocide. Yet it too has its own shortfalls. Commenting close on the heels of the movie’s launch, president Paul Kagame described the movie’s portrayal of Rusesabagina as a “falsehood,” further adding he would not have picked him as a symbol of heroism in those tragic times.

“Some of the things actually attributed to this person (Rusesabagina) are not true,” Kagame told reporters. “Even those that are true do not merit the level of highlight.”

A year later came Shooting Dogs, filmed on location at the Ecole Technique Officielle, the school in Kigali where Belgian U.N. troops abandoned some 2,000 Tutsis to be slaughtered by machete-wielding killers.

Shooting Dogs actually refers to a scene in the film where peacekeepers are not allowed to shoot dogs that are eating corpses because they are told they can only shoot at things that have shot at them first.

Run by priests and home to Belgian UN troops, the school witnessed unprecedented carnage when about 2,500 Tutsi who took shelter there were slaughtered by militia after the UN troops left.

A review on the Guardian Online said the BBC-financed film “only compounds the original sins of the West’s media”.

Shooting Dogs has attracted its fair share of criticism, especially from genocide survivors who know better. What seems particularly offensive about this movie is a particular scene where a white Roman Catholic priest decides to stay with the refugees, rather than be evacuated along with his expatriate colleagues.

It is public knowledge that many senior church leaders were party to Genocide ideology, so it is understandable that such a depiction would only serve to rattle emotions.

“There was never a situation, not at that school or anywhere, where a white person refused to be evacuated. That is a pure lie,” said Wilson Gabo, a coordinator of Rwanda’s Survivors Fund charity.

The makers concede a degree of artistic license with the facts of what actually happened at the school, risking inflaming tempers in a society where memories are still raw.

Amid international inaction, the Genocide was finally ended by the Paul Kagame-led RPF, who led a rebel invasion from Uganda to seize power.

The characters in Shooting Dogs are fictional but the setting is real, according to producer David Belton.

It is set in a school where Belgian United Nations peacekeepers were stationed before pulling out - leaving refugees who were later killed.

The movie was filmed in the same school where the massacre took place, using survivors in the cast and crew.

Although the films about Rwanda’s genocide have succeeded in shocking Western audiences with the scale and savagery of the slaughter, many survivors remain unimpressed.

They say the big-screen depictions of the carnage have got the story largely wrong.

“My conclusion was that both movies are another Hollywood fiction geared at making money,” said Jean Pierre Rucogoza, a 47 year old university lecturer and genocide survivor who has watched Sometimes in April and Hotel Rwanda.

Rucogoza lost 11 relatives in the killings. In an interview on the eve of the 12th genocide memorial anniversary, he said he believed the films partly represented the West’s conscience rearing its head too late.

“But, unfortunately, they are also being used as a money-minting tool,” he told Reuters. Many who lived through Rwanda’s bloodshed say they are happy the films remind the world of the tragedy, but say the reality was different.

“Sometimes in April is characterized by very serious inaccuracies and omissions which made most survivors say ‘it is not our story’,” said Francois Ngarambe, president of a Rwandan Genocide survivors’ association.

Directed by Raoul Peck, Sometimes in April tells of the plight of a Hutu soldier who is separated from his Tutsi wife and two children as violence engulfs the capital Kigali in April 1994.

Ten years later, he learns of their deaths from his brother, who was a presenter on a hate radio station urging the killers on, and is now facing an international trial.

Ngarambe said the film wrongly portrayed the Genocide as largely the work of militia, neglecting the careful planning by the Hutu extremists in the government and the military.

 

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