Last night I watched one of the most challenging films that I’ve seen in months. Shooting Dogs (entitled Beyond the Gates in the USA where it has shamefully not got a distributor) tells the story of an English priest – Father Christopher (John Hurt) – who heads up a school in Rwanda in 1994. Christopher is caught up in the growing violence between Tutsi and Hutu tribes which escalates into genocide. The film, whose official website is a blog, is based on a story co-written by BBC journalist David Belton who was working in the country at the time of the genocide. The film powerfully accounts the events that took place at the Ecole Technique Officielle school in Kigali between April 6th and April 11th in 1994.
The film depicts the experiences of the world-weary school headmaster Father Christopher (John Hurt) and Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), a charismatic and idealistic young man taking a year out teaching in Africa. When the genocide begins to erupt, the school becomes a refuge for Europeans and Tutsis. A contingent of Belgiant UN soldiers is stationed at the school but as the Hutu government vows to eliminate all Tutsis, the refugees wonder if the UN will protect them from the machete-wielding Hutu militias who start to surround the school. The film paints the UN as spineless, toothless and racist.
Director Michael Canton-Jones elicits naturalistic performances from the actors, some of whom are survivors of the genocide, as are many of the support crew. The film was shot at the location where the actual events took place. Canton-Jones employs mainly handheld cameras in order to give the film a documentary feel. John Hurt and Hugh Dancy give strong, emotional performances as characters caught up in a series of moral dilemmas as to how they can help the Rwandans – both Hutu and Tutsi . By focusing on the fate of one school, this accomplished film succeeds in giving an overview of the devastating Rwandan genocide and the apathetic paralysis of various governments and organisations in dealing with the growing conflict which claimed the lives of somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 human beings.
I must say that despite watching the film with a bottle of good red (something which in itself requires reflection), it took me hours to get to sleep afterwards – such were the questions that it elicits: questions of justice, sense of call, costly discipleship, human limitation, the sacramentality of incarnational ministry, politics, love, racism, human depravity, hope. Moreover, it drove me to silence … and prayer.
Most reviewers have compared the film with Hotel Rwanda, almost unanimously preferring Shooting Dogs. I’m not sure it’s fair to compare the two films as is usually done. Although the overlap of historical subject matter is obvious enough, the films are attempting to do very different things. Both, I think, do it very well.
If I’m ever allowed back into a classroom, the issues wonderfully raised by this film would serve as a great compliment. A must see.
I’m just about to sit down (without a red) and watch another film on the Rwandan genocide. If Sometimes in April is half as good as Shooting Dogs, I’ll post on it sometime too.