“The Last Just Man” chronicles events that led to the slaughter of 800,000 human beings in 100 days as recounted by the head of the U.N. mission in Rwanda, Brig. Gen. Romeo Dellaire, a Canadian who bore witness to those atrocities and, at least in his own mind, bears responsibility for not being able to stop them. Documentarian Steven Silver has fashioned a film of amazing scope, at once a straightforward account of genocide, an indictment of the contradictions of international peacekeeping and a testimonial to one man’s conscience. Recipient of numerous humanitarian and audience awards on the fest circuit including best documentary audience award at Hamptons fest, docu, which has aired on Canadian TV, deserves to find wider vid auds worldwide.
Docu opens by intercutting Dellaire’s face in darkness with brief flashes of past horrors triggered by a hand hoe and a machete, the unlikely weapons of mass destruction picked up at one of the thousands of massacre sites in a country once considered a paradise on Earth. Dellaire describes how he later used those weapons in talks he gave about his experiences in Rwanda, hacking a watermelon “head” in two midway through his spiel, dramatically making his point. What haunts him most is the guilt he carries for not having made his point earlier, though it’s soon clear it was not through lack of trying.
Via talking-head interviews and voiceover narration with images of streets, buildings and villages, Silver evokes the inexorable genocidal juggernaut building day by day and Delllaire’s parallel, constantly thwarted attempts to derail it. Using little contemporaneous footage, Silver makes no attempt at fully staged reconstruction, but rather suggests the larger canvas painted by Dellaire’s words and recollections.
Pic is admirably concise in filling in the backstory of the Hutus and Tutsis, the roots of whose conflict lie with the politics of the Belgian colonial officials who made the Tutsi overseers of Hutu work gangs, then set up a Hutu government before decamping. The slow-building takeover of the radio and the country by Hutu extremists openly bent on the extermination of all Tutsis (broadcasts exhort citizens to kill all pregnant Tutsi women) is, to an extent, protected and given gestation time by the presence of the U.N.
Silver concentrates less on the whys and wherefores of genocide than on the failure of the rest of the world to act. Early on, Dellaire is given detailed, verifiable information that would have allowed him to take the initiative and confiscate illegal arms caches (half a million machetes entered the country) before they could be distributed. He sent dispatches to U.N. headquarters in NYC informing them of his intentions only to be faxed an unconditional order forbidding him to intercede, a directive that would be repeated over and over in the gun-shy backlash that followed the American deaths in Somalia.
Dellaire homes in on the central problem facing U.N. peacekeeping forces from nations unwilling to take casualties. Part of the Hutu extremists’ plans he uncovered called for the killing of Belgium soldiers to force a U.N. withdrawal. Indeed when six Belgian soldiers were shot, Belgium immediately pulled out its troops, leaving hundreds of children to the mercy of death squads. Dellaire argues eloquently for a permanent peacekeeping force not answerable to questions of why “our boys and girls” are at risk, but accountable instead to the ideology that “man is man is man, we’re all the same.”
It’s a tossup as to what’s more disheartening, the unthinkable genocide or its ironic aftermath, straight out of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” as a frantically backpedaling U.N. and its member states scapegoat the only ones who did everything within their power to end the slaughter.
The price of non-involvement can be measured in Dellaire’s ravaged face, hollow eyes and soft monotone as he itemizes the atrocities he’s seen. Dellaire, tragic Cassandra-figure haunted by his failure to formulate the right words to convince his superiors of the looming disaster, has twice attempted suicide.