Eleven years later, the Rwandan genocide continues to intrigue filmmakers, even if the full horror of the bloody events seems too demanding for many of them to confront. Although in many respects a more stylish, authentic, tougher-minded film than “Hotel Rwanda,” director Michael Caton-Jones’ respectable and well-intentioned “Shooting Dogs” still falls into the trap of filtering an inherently African story through the eyes of a noble white protagonist — in this case, two of them. Given the wealth of cinematic material on a subject so unpleasant (including HBO’s “Sometimes in April” and several excellent docus), pic is most like to reach an audience of politically-aware small-screen viewers.
Like the Hotel des Mille Collines that provided the inspiration for “Hotel Rwanda,” the Ecole Technique Officielle was a real place — a secondary school located in the capital city of Kigali that similarly came to serve as a makeshift shelter for Tutsis and moderate Hutus at the height of the killings. The school, which also served as base camp for a company of Belgian UN peacekeepers, came to harbor some 2,500 refugees until, some five days after the start of the genocide, the UN pulled its troops out of the school, consigning those left behind to the knowledge they would soon be killed.
Slightly fictionalized screenplay by David Wolstencroft unfolds through the eyes of Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), a young British schoolteacher spending a year at the Ecole. There, he is taken under the wing of the avuncular Father Christopher (John Hurt), whose weary face fails to conceal the ethnic violence he has witnessed during his long African sojourn.
Pic’s early sections do an accomplished job of mapping out the simmering tensions between Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi factions: The bright Tutsi pupil, Marie (Claire-Hope Ashitey), to whom Joe has taken a particular liking, is teased and pelted by Hutu classmates, while the school’s Hutu custodian (David Gyasi) is shown to be one of the many Rwandans whose sensibilities have been corrupted by the incessant hate propaganda of the infamous RTLM radio station. Location shooting in Kigali is also a major plus.
In many respects, the character of Joe seems a surrogate for “Shooting Dogs” producer and co-story writer David Belton, who was himself a BBC news cameraman on location in Rwanda in 1994 and who, in the pic’s press notes, expresses a feeling of guilt over the speed with which he — like nearly all other Americans and Europeans — evacuated the country as soon as the going got tough.
Exploring that guilt is certainly a worthy subject for a film. But as “Shooting Dogs” progresses, it turns into more of an exaltation of Joe and Father Christopher than a consideration of why the Western world was so quick to turn a blind eye to Rwanda. After a while, the nobility of the characters, and of the film itself, becomes stifling. In short, if “Hotel Rwanda” was a movie about 1,200 people who lived while nearly 1,000,000 others perished, “Shooting Dogs” is a movie about the two white men who stayed behind to help when all others fled. Aside from Marie, none of pic’s African characters are developed in three dimensions.
“Shooting Dogs” is unquestionably at its most compelling in its depiction of Father Christopher’s steadfast reliance on spirituality, even when confronted with such a startling display of inhumanity. Even as the violence reaches its zenith, he continues to perform Mass and seems more concerned with making sure each child receives communion than in formulating a possible exit strategy. Yet the film stops short of becoming a full-bodied portrait of a clergyman in crisis, and too often falls back on by-now familiar images of carnage-strewn streets and corrupt government ministers.
With a drawn, harrowed face like a relief map of suffering, Hurt proves one of the pic’s chief assets, as does newcomer Ashitey, though Dancy’s performance rarely advances beyond one-note outrage. Despite its many shortcomings, pic benefits immeasurably from the fluidity of Caton-Jones’ direction and the depth, texture and immediacy of d.p. Ivan Strasburg’s lensing.