Monday, March 20, 2006

Notes on a Massacre

David Belton’s experience as a BBC news producer in Rwanda left him determined to help the survivors tell their story in the film Shooting Dogs, as Jemma Kennedy discovers.

The fictionalisation of any historical event is a risky move, particularly one fresh in the collective memory. For anyone who watched the horror of the 1994 Rwandan genocide unfold, the idea of a dramatisation for the Western market may raise questions about the right of outsiders to turn someone else’s reality into entertainment. But as David Belton, the producer and co-writer of Shooting Dogs explains, “I felt strongly from my experience of Rwanda this was a country with message to convey, and it was important the message was conveyed by its survivors.”

The film itself is based on true events surrounding the Ecole Technique Officielle, a Catholic school in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. A UN military base during the escalating conflict, it became a refuge for Rwanda’s minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus who were fleeing the guns and machetes of extremist Hutu militia. But when the orders came for the UN to withdraw, 2,500 refugees were left behind. The ensuing massacre was systematic and ruthless.

The facts of the story are explored through the eyes of those with the option to leave, including the school’s director Father Christopher, young English teacher Joe Connor, a visiting BBC crew and UN soldiers. All have come to Rwanda to make a difference, the question is, will they do anything to help those who are dependent on them for protection?

The key scenes of the film document five days of agonised waiting for a decision from the UN authorities about whether the soldiers should stay or withdraw. As fuel, food and medicine begin to run out, and the machete-wielding Hutu extremists prowl the school perimeter, the sense of imminent catastrophe grows. At the centre of the story is the fate of Joe’s star pupil Marie, a young girl seemingly destined for great things but whose ethnicity makes her a target in her own country.

David Belton’s experience as a BBC news producer in Rwanda sowed the seed for the film. It was also his decision to use survivors of the massacre to provide the bulk of its crew and actors, and to shoot in the original location of the site of the Ecole Technique Officielle.

For actress Clare Hope-Ashitey, who, in her first major film role, plays Marie, it was a daunting task. “Meeting the people was fantastic, although in many ways distressing too because they have been through something so horrific. But, at the same time, they all showed an incredibly inspiring amount of strength and togetherness. It’s so daunting to go into someone else’s country and try and tell someone else’s story. Once it finally hits, you think, ‘I’ve no right to be here,’ but they were so encouraging.”

It’s a theme echoed by Belton. “We had nothing but help and support from the Rwandans,” he says. “They were quite offended the film Hotel Rwanda was shot elsewhere because its producers felt it wasn’t appropriate to go back to the original location. The Rwandans’ had a need to revisit their past, however difficult it was and we thought that was their right.”

Hope-Ashitey adds; “When we were filming, the atmosphere wasn’t about anger, animosity and feelings such as ‘why didn’t you help us?’ It was more that we can’t do anything about situations that have happened but we can try and educate everyone so it doesn’t happen again.”

Although Shooting Dogs unflinchingly explores the role of the West in allowing the genocide, ultimately it explores much wider themes such as personal moral choice and the responsibility of individuals. Within this story, the West’s withdrawal means the wild dogs of the title will be spared - the UN soldiers used to shoot the strays feasting on corpses - but the Tutsis and moderate Hutus will not. It’s a powerful metaphor about the amoral ability of those in power to ration human lives and one that is chillingly bought into focus at the film’s climax, when a Tutsi father begs the departing UN soldiers to humanely kill his children with bullets, rather than leave them to the Hutu machetes.

Belton is keen to point out, however, that the film was not made merely to castigate the failure of the West. “I’ve met enough people in Africa, not just priests, but aid workers, teachers, even UN staff, who have a strong spiritual core as well as a very clearly defined sense of personal morality,” he says. “That was really important to tap into. It was important this film didn’t just say, ‘It’s the fault of the UN and all our Western governments are useless’. It’s also about personal morality and your own set of beliefs. Whatever they are, they can make a difference.”

A strong cast is headed by John Hurt as the indefatigable priest Father Christopher, who can save souls and birth babies single-handedly, but whose faith in God, as well as the potential of human beings to do good, is no match for the bloodlust of the Hutu militia. Meanwhile the liberal ideals of Joe Connor, played by Hugh Dancy, are tested to the limit when he is forced to choose between abandoning the camp to secure his own safety, or staying behind to comfort his pupils and friends at the risk of almost certain death. Clare Hope-Ashitey, in particular, gives a devastatingly restrained performance as the naive Marie, whose hopes for survival are pinned on her white teacher. And it’s this insistence on the exploration of ideas through character that enables the film to rise far above any potential didacticism.

The brave and intelligent script also poses a range of complex questions about the various by-products of colonialism, including the impact of the so-called impartial BBC cameras, and the role of the Western aid worker, who often have to battle the temptation to star in their own Oxfam ads. In one penetrating scene, a BBC reporter discusses her inability to feel emotionally moved by the carnage she sees around her, because at the end of the day, ‘they’re just dead Africans.’

So does Belton think Western viewers are now so immune to the horrors of TV news footage that we respond better to dramatic stories?

“It’s a good question,” he muses. “I think the danger of jumping in with drama is that you’re saying, ‘let’s not worry about television news, it’s not important’. Of course news is really important. It’s important at a journalistic level to ask the tough questions. If you don’t ask them at the sharp end, then whatever messages you want to convey when you do a drama are never going to be very good. I think it’s more about television news people realising they are have to compete with people who are keen to get dramas made. Of course we can tell a story in television news. I used to work at Newsnight and my job was to tell a story, and if I told it properly, an audience should be convinced. But I think it’s incumbent for news people not to churn out Third World news from that same old conveyer belt. There are more original ways of covering such stories.’

And in a similar vein, at the recent BAFTA awards, Lord Puttnam spoke about his renewed faith in the ability of the film industry to demonstrate that education and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive. So while British filmmakers may not have always been able to compete with the commercial success of their American associates, it’s clear British sensibility has never been more important in creating art that has a function beyond escapism. Shooting Dogs is a vital addition to that tradition of powerful political drama but also for great storytelling. It is not always an easy film to watch, but it is rewarding on every level.

SHOOTING DOGS (15), Michael Caton-Jones, 2005, UK/Germany (115 mins). John Hurt, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Hugh Dancy. Released Friday 31st March.

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