Last year's highly acclaimed Hotel Rwanda, if not the first, was certainly the most visible. It chose to focus in on one of the heroes of that particularly dark time in Rwanda's history, and delivered a heart-warming story of courage in the face of extreme adversity that was hard to resist. Shooting Dogs, which came out on DVD last Monday, is the most recent film about the genocide, and I would argue, is an even better film than Hotel Rwanda was: it's more powerful, more gut-wrenching, and ultimately more informative. That it manages to be so despite the limited financial resourcing by the BBC and UK Film Council, is nothing short of astounding, and one suspects this is down to director Michael Caton Jones, slumming it from Hollywood and Basic Instinct 2 to tell a story he believes in. Caton Jones' genius here is that he realises he has a wonderful script and wonderful actors and doesn't need to be flash or gimmicky: he just needs to tell the story.
And it IS a story, not a documentary reconstruction, albeit one featuring real events, with many of the survivors of the original genocide, and filmed at the real locations. Telling a story of genocide is always going to make for harrowing viewing, and for the viewer the way into the story here is through two invented white characters: John Hurt's cynical, and rather jaded, priest and Hugh Dancy's naive idealist on a year's break teaching at L'Ecole Technique Officielle - the school which becomes the central location for what follows. Both actors deliver strong, powerful performances, with Hurt in particular impressing with a wonderfully subtle performance that relies on facial expressions rather than high drama or words.
The cinematograpy is strong, if subtle. Given the low budget and 'BBC Films' label, one might expect this to come across more as a polished teleplay than a major motion picture, but despite the lack of financing this has the epic sweep of a major motion picture and can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of such recent high profile pictures as the afore-mentioned Hotel Rwanda or The Constant Gardener. Much of the Rwandan camera work is static or hand-held to give an action/documentary feel, and then when the film moves forward in time to England five years after the original events that have been depicted, we get luxurious dolly-tracking shots and sweeping crane shots that help subtly underline the difference between the poverty in Rwanda and the luxury of one of Britain's most famous public schools.
The film reminded me very much of one of my favourite movies, The Killing Fields, but with the tension and sense of danger ramped up even higher. The film gets its title from the behaviour of the United Nations peace-keeping forces that shows how nonsensical 'orders from above' can be: soldiers refused to shoot bullets at those hacking innocent Tsuutsi's to death with machettes on the pretext that they had not been attacked themselves, but were able to use their bullets to shoot the dogs that would attempt to feed on the decaying bodies of the mutilated victims.
Unlike Hotel Rwanda, the violence isn't ignored or merely hinted at, but it never feels gratuitous either - it's there to show what really happened, and much of the real horror is cleverly hinted at 'off screen'. Ultimately though this is a story that tries to lead the viewer to the movie's tagline 'What would you risk to make a difference?' It's a question that the two leads have to address, and one that they address in very different ways from those one might have predicted, based on the characters one encounters at the start of the film.
There was only one point where I felt the film had succumbed to Hollywood sentimentality. There's a scene where the abandoned Rwandans beg the departing United Nations soldiers to kill them with their bullets, to save them the trauma of being attacked with machette's. It's therefore all the more alarming to discover that this was not something added to the screenplay for effect. On the accompanying commentary track the producer reveals that he heard these pleas 'hundreds of times' when he was one of the lucky whites being evacuated from the school by the UN forces.
The supporting actors are universally excellent, all the more astounding since most of them are not professionals - merely survivors of the original massacre. But the actress who plays the worldly-wise BBC reporter deserves special mention for an outstanding performance in a very minor role. In a particularly moving, and brutally honest, scene she talks of having worked in Bosnia the previous year where she'd cried every day. When Hugh Dancy's character suggests that she's just become numb to the violence after so much exposure to it she contradicts him: "It's worse than that. In Bosnia when I saw a dead woman I'd see a white woman and think 'that could be my mother'. Whereas here I just see another dead African". It's a line that's typical of the honesty, and refusal to ignore ugly facts, that one feels is the main motivation for this film.
Considering this is a film that received its world premiere less than five months ago, the DVD extra's are very generous. We get two commentaries: a subdued but informative track from the director, and then a more passionate and enthusiastic (and better) track from the producer David Belton and writer David Wolstencroft. Belton, who was at the school as a BBC cameraman in 1994 when the original events occurred, also features heavily in the 40 minute 'Making of' documentary, and it becomes clear very quickly that this is a film that got made because of the film makers' strong beliefs that this was a story that the whole world needed to hear. With the current events in Darfur in Sudan and the frankly shocking news that this fantastic film still doesn't have any US distribution, one can only shake one's head that the story still isn't being heard by all those that need to hear it. A film of this quality and sensitivity needs to be seen by everyone. Wrapping up the extra's, a filmmakers' diary and a trailer complete the package.
This is the first film I've given a full five stars to in a long, long time. It's not easy viewing, but it's worthwhile viewing, and the heavy message is delivered via a virtually flawless film. I can't recommend it enough!