In Cinemas March 31

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Director's thoughts.


Michael Caton-Jones on Shooting Dogs.


It was the sound that got me. Some sounds are so visceral they transcend words. You feel them in your stomach. We had been standing, my crew and I, as the sun dappled through the trees on to red-dirt African schoolyard, about to make our first shot of the day. We all stopped working as a minibus bounced noisily out the gates. It was full of teenage schoolgirls screeching and yelling. In any other place that would have been unremarkable, the heady chemical mixture of age and innocence on a school outing.

But here, in Rwanda, it was not a benign noise. The screams were not ones of youthful delight. This sound was terror. The hysterical reliving of personal horrors. A half-dozen private hells being given human voice. And I had been partially responsible.

The previous evening we had filmed a group of extras parading noisily as the notorious, machete-wielding Interahamwe militia. We were always careful to keep these scenes hidden from the public for fear of causing undue distress. We had made the shots, packed up and gone home. However, a nearby dormitory of students heard the chanting and whistling and it had triggered a series of panicked flashbacks among them. Twelve hours later they were still in trauma, and the minibus was taking them to be hospitalised. It was then that I really understood the seriousness and responsibility of what I was doing.

I was in Rwanda to film Shooting Dogs, an account of what happened at the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO) during the first five days of what became known as the Rwandan genocide.

When you tell people you were in Rwanda, you often see a look of hazy recognition in their eyes. They know something horrific occurred there, but the details tend to be vague. For many, the word Rwanda has become a simplistic symbol for Darkest Africa, home of the bestial and barbaric. In representing a specifically Third World madness, it neatly fuses lazy racial preconceptions with a frighteningly widespread First World ignorance. It was something "they" did to each other, over "there".

Of course, it didn't stop those looks of hazy recognition from taking on a vicarious glint. So, what was it like? Was it safe? What did you see? (Subtext: tell me about the machetes.) I was probably like that myself before I went there.

On the night of 6 April 1994, persons unknown shot down Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane. He was a Hutu. His killing was the catalyst of a civil war, as furious Hutu extremists in the military and police force took control of the government and sent death squads into the streets. State radio branded the minority Tutsi as the enemy and urged loyal Hutu citizens, the majority, to do their duty and defend the country against this "enemy within". In effect, to kill them all.

The outside world knew what was happening and chose to do nothing as Rwanda turned into a living hell. Almost a million people were hunted down and slaughtered in three months.

What happened at the ETO is sometimes referred to as Rwanda's Srebrenica. For five days, the sprawling campus in a suburb of Kigali became a sanctuary of sorts for about 2,500 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis but also some moderate Hutu and Western expatriates. They came to escape the lawlessness and violence that was everywhere, and for protection from the Belgian United Nations troops billeted there. The school quickly became surrounded by squads of the murderous Interahamwe.

What happened next was as shameful as it was symbolic. French troops arrived to evacuate only white expatriates. No Rwandans, no exceptions. Immediately after this was accomplished, the UN contingent abandoned the compound, leaving the terrified men, women and children to a certain death. Most were killed within hours of the UN leaving.

I initially went to Rwanda in 2004 to see if it was feasible to make this film there. I don't know what I expected to find, but whatever I expected, it wasn't what I got.

Physically, the Land of a Thousand Hills is a quite beautiful country, lush verdant green during the rainy season and parched dusty red when dry. It isn't what I would imagine a typically African landscape. No wild, wide plains full of animals here, just hills. Many of those thousand hills are terraced, planted with crops, cultivated and tended. It was testimony, both to overpopulation and extreme poverty, that it looked so agricultural, more Tuscany than The Lion King. It did, however, explain the ubiquitousness of the machete.

In Kigali, the boisterous capital, * * developed and undeveloped world co-exist. I could get a broadband connection in the hotel but would sit in darkness on my balcony and watch as the daily power cuts blacked out hillsides all around.

The Rwandese like to dress smartly and many people carry mobile phones, but many more are in bare feet and ragged T-shirts, carrying yellow plastic containers to get water from communal taps because they have none at home.

They like their football and are very clued-up about the English football leagues and their players. I often spotted obscure club shirts on children in the streets ("Oh Irony, Thy Name Is Sheffield United. Nickname: The Blades!"). The shirts were all in the fashions of a few years ago because they had arrived by way of aid packages, the discards of a more affluent world elsewhere.

All in all, though, my initial impression was of a functioning country, vibrant and peaceful and, apart from the parliament building, still pock-marked by shells, showing few physical signs of the war.

It's when you begin talking to people that you realise the scars are all psychological. They are hidden, but they're everywhere. Once you understand that, you encounter the all-encompassing horror of genocide. It's estimated that 94 per cent of the entire population witnessed some kind of extreme violence during the genocide.

The Rwandans are a reserved people, not given much to histrionic outward displays of emotion. People continually used "the war" as a reference point in their conversation: "before the war" "during the war" and "after the war". It was as if by placing their experiences into one of those three phrases the whole emotional geography of their situation could be instantly understood. Life was innocent, or it was terrifying, or it was grief stricken. There was nothing more to say because everyone understood.

Realising that many of the shy smiles on display were a mask, to disguise some unutterable private devastation they were bound to carry around for ever, only increased this sense of melancholy and sadness.

Talking to survivors (and almost the entire country is a survivor) there was often a complete lack of emotion in their stories, just an unaffected retelling - the unimaginable terror and suffering, the horrific loss, the emptiness and guilt of their survival all told in an open, unsensational way. I would often be asked: "Why did no one do anything to help? Did no one care?" Of course I had no answer except: "We didn't know," which sounded marginally less offensive than: "We didn't care." They then say: "You must tell the world what happened here, this must never happen again." The simplicity of expression and the lack of manipulation had a deep effect on me. It became a key to how this story should be told. Just tell it. Honestly.

I knew there was no film-making infrastructure in Rwanda and that it could quite possibly be a very miserable experience all round - but, for fuck's sake, it was their story. How could it not be made there? I decided that, however difficult, we had to film in Rwanda; we had to shoot at the ETO. And we had to make the film with survivors of the genocide. They had to be allowed to tell their story.

Now, I sincerely believe that the real films about what happened in Rwanda will only be made when the Rwandans can make them for and about themselves, but at the moment, that ability didn't exist. In the meantime, though, Shooting Dogs could partially redress the persistent Western ignorance on the subject.

A film creates a sizeable financial knock-on effect anywhere it's made, injecting money that normally wouldn't be there into the local economy. Naturally, in a country as poor as Rwanda, this created a frenzied desire for jobs. A day's work as an extra paid US$16 (about £9), a vast sum, and there were often huge crowds every dawn as people looked for employment. We couldn't hire them all, of course, but, more worryingly, it was also likely that we'd be hiring people who had taken a part in the killings in 1994. I may not know who they were, but others certainly would and this could cause any degree of tension.

For all practical purposes a film set is not a democracy; at best, it's a benign dictatorship. To that end, I made a policy decision early on that there would be no differentiation among employees by way of race, nationality, ethnicity or gender.

The experienced would train the inexperienced; the local would look after the foreigner; Rwandese, German, Belgian, Ugandan, European, Tutsi, Hutu, even the English, were all just crew members. We weren't being saintly, just practical; we had to integrate people into one unit for the duration. Of course it would be naive to think this solved every difference, but not wanting to lose the financial benefits of working on the film helped to keep any resentments at a distance.

Words take on a different meaning to the people who've actually lived them. Imagine that you're terrified. Imagine that you think you are going to be killed. Imagine you are watching your mother being macheted. Imagine saying goodbye to your children before they die. Imagine watching UN soldiers save the dogs of white people but refuse to help Rwandese. Most of my cast and crew endured all this and tragically much more. Yet still they thought it important to recreate these scenes as faithfully and accurately as possible, so that we could "tell the world what happened there".

I spent more than five months there; it was some of the most exhilarating, exasperating, humbling, life-affirming time I have spent on the planet.

One night I was sitting around with an elderly Rwandan. We were sipping cold Mutzig beer and eating spicy goat brochette. He was educated and multilingual - and he had lost a child and a limb in what he called "the war". He spoke without rancour, but his voice dropped and he became barely audible as he recalled what happened to him at the Ecole Technique Officielle.

I asked him how he felt about the West or the United Nations now. He said he had been angry, very angry, for a long time, but that he had eventually reached a realisation. He quoted George Orwell's Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. I think that Rwandans were the wrong animals."

Recently, at a screening for Shooting Dogs in a plush London theatre, I was asked a question by a rather smug film-industry type: why make another film with white men in Africa? Wasn't it really just more exploitation?

Poor old fucking Africa.

Black first, human second.

Hair-splitting like that was why no one did anything about the genocide in the first place. Of course, his was a notion born of a privileged ignorance, a politically correct nicety so hollow and irrelevant to the Rwandan reality that I cringed for them in absentia.

I wanted to tell him that he had missed the point. Spectacularly so. I wanted to tell him about the survivors' stories I'd heard, about the gut-wrenching wailing of the traumatised schoolgirls, about how Rwandans just happened to be the "wrong animals". But I couldn't. In the end I could only say: "Because the Rwandans already know what happened. You don't."

-Michael Caton-Jones

23 Comments:

At 5:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In an article in The Observer (UK) March 19th, I read that the BBC did virtually nothing to highlight the genocide on its news networks, neither before it happened, not while it was happening.
It has now made this film to salve its guilty conscience and even has the gall to feature a heroic BBC reporter in the film, when in reality, no BBC personnel were present.
Please explain why nothing was done at the time to tell the world about this event, when, according to the information in the article, the western press knew what was going on. If you cannot answer this question, I can only conclude that the complicity of the BBC was as evil as the genocide itself. Prove me wrong and answer my question please.

 
At 6:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more question. Seeing as you all care so much about the plight of the Rwandans, did ALL the crew work for free and will all the profits made by the film be going to Rwandan charities?
The West caused the Rwandan problem in the first place, and now it makes money from it, while, at the same time, profering a heartfelt concern. Hypocrisy is not the word to describe what is going on here. You'd have to invent a new word to describe the West's (and the BBC's) behaviour.
Reminds me a bit of the Holocaust, where the British government knew what was going on, but refused to spare even one plane, yes ONE PLANE, to bomb the railway tracks at Auschwitz.

 
At 6:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derar Mr Angry,
Don't believe everything you read.
What you have read and what you have repeated here is simply not true. If you REALLY care about this issue, do some research. It isn't difficult to find. Look up the work of Mark Doyle or Fergal Keane and then please explain why you have come here and mouthed off in the first place. Otherwise i can only conclude that you have no desire to have your viewpoint altered.Prove me wrong and answer me please.

 
At 6:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh dear.

Well, seeing as thought Mr Angry has not even seen the film, I don't think he has much to stand on.

I'll be shocked if the BBC reporter is portrayed as a 'heroic' as that is not what the film is about. If Bruce Willis was playing the reporter -then maybe.

As for all the crew working for free!!!! Has Mr Angry read this blog???

He will see that a large percentage of the cast and crew WERE RWANDANS! So yes, they got paid. Read the producers diary from yesterday and you'll see how much they paid an extra for appearing in the film.

And as for the Auschwitz comment!? Its not like the place was in easy reach of any coalition planes! Come on.

 
At 6:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. So, what you are telling me is that Linda Melvern, who wrote the Observer article, and a book on the subject, is a total liar? I think someone from the Observer and the Guardian, if not Linda herself, is clearly obligated to respond to this.

 
At 6:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

''And as for the Auschwitz comment!? Its not like the place was in easy reach of any coalition planes! Come on.''
6 million totally innocent men, women and childen are told they are going to have a shower and are then pushed into gas chambers and then incinerated, or shot in the back of the head, and you dare to write this when thousands of bombers flew over that part of europe throughout the war!! Just goes to prove my argument generally and also shows that the banality of evil is alive and kicking in you and your words.

 
At 6:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a bit of a heated discussion and maybe it is moving of the point.
This site has stated on many occasions that the West faultered in its handling of the situation.
I agree that many stories are now 'hollywoodized' in their re-telling, but I don't think the BBC made a film about the genocide just to cash in.
Many Rwandans have commented on this site about how greatful they are that their story is being told. They want the world to see what happened so that it won't happen again.
I personaly think the film is about rememberance and learning. Not about money making.
Let us hope that people see the film and realize the damage we can do to each other and help prevent it in the future.
Mark. AZ

 
At 7:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you say, it is quite clear that 'Mr.Angry' has not seen SHOOTING DOGS and is simply taking the Linda Melvern Observer piece as gospel truth which is very naive. Having seen the film and then reading Linda Melvern's article, I'm not even convinced that she has seen the film!You have to do your research on these sensitive matters before bursting in and attacking the motives of the BBC in making this film.

Firstly, as has thankfully been pointed out, there is no 'heroic BBC figure' in this film. There is a BBC reporter who is shown to have a conscience but she is in no way glorified as heroic. The film simply depicts the difficult decisions that people caught up in the genocide had to face. Indeed, each one of us must confront these questions however far away from the crisis we may be, when these evils threaten humanity.

This is a fantastic film that will have a positive effect on all that see it. The viewer cannot ignore its powerful impact. This film enables the story of the genocide to be told the world over. Of course the media were partly at fault, but we are all guilty of ignorance when it comes to the events of 1994. Atleast this film is looking to raise awareness NOW and not letting this tragedy be forgotten. This sort of awareness is so important in the route towards preventing further contemporary genocides.

What has also been pointed now is that Rwandans involved in the film were of course not expected to work for free. Furthermore, as we can see from the blog alone, the release of this film has been closely linked with a number of charities to help maximise awareness.

I actually heard the author of the Observer piece interviewed on Radio Scotland alongside a lady called Beatha, who is a genocide survivor and worked on the set of SHOOTING DOGS. Beatha was firmly against what the Observer writer had to say explaining how important it was that this film was made. She explained how recreating and confronting the events of the past was hugely difficult but that it also was an important part of the 'healing process'. She thanked the BBC for coming to their country to tell their story and explained how important it was for the Rwandese locals to be involved in the production itself.

She finished by saying:

" I wanted SHOOTING DOGS to be made...When I talk to groups in the UK to explain what happened, it is hard to desribe, but this film gives pictures to what I am trying to say...Everyone should see SHOOTING DOGS."

That just about sums up the importance of this film.

 
At 7:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Linda Melvern is clearly well-learned on the subject of the Rwandan genocide but fails to recognise that a single film can never hope to tell the whole story as it was. Atleast it is going some way to teaching of the global community's failure in the past. This film does not pretend to be the exact truth but we can certainly learn from it.

Nobody's word can be taken as the whole truth - not Linda Melvern's nor the writers of SHOOTING DOGS', but the more that is written or filmed on the subject of Rwanda the better. This sort of coverage is so important in raising awareness.

 
At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The West caused the Rwandan problem in the first place.
The Western media and the BBC did nothing to highlight the genocide before or while it was happening.
These are the issues. I do not have to see the film,(I saw 'Hotel Rwanda' two years ago!) I am criticizing the hypocrisy behind it. It's easy to make films about other people's misery. The viewer can feel lucky his predicament is not as bad as those in the film and can come away from the film with an undeserved, smug, indulgent sense of humanism by empathizing with those in the film. The film is an outlet for your collective guilt. That is why you are so desperate to defend it.

 
At 8:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow!
Not just Angry, ignorant too.

 
At 8:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'The beauty of concision is that you can only state conventional thoughts.'

Why don't you counter thoughts and arguments with rational counter arguments instead of throwing in a five word throw-away comment?

 
At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 8:45 AM, Blogger Administrator said...

Please keep this debate clean and on topic otherwise we shall have to remove your comments.

The fact that we have a debate going here is great and everyone's views are welcome.

However, if the debate turns into petty bickering and squabbling then we will have to stop the thread, as that is not the purpose of this blog.

 
At 8:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please just see the film and realise that it is better to have these sort of films than not. This film does not defend the media's failure in 1994, nor are the BBC suggesting that this film will make ammends for the lack of coverage at the time.

We need to look back, not to point the blame (there are too many that are culpable - we are all in our own way guilty), but so that we don't forget what happened, so that we can learn from our mistkaes and ensure that nothing like this happens again.

 
At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Seraphine Ufitinema said...

I am a genocide survivor and I wanted to thank you for making this film and telling our story. For those who are criticizing it, they should also offer some other alternatives on how to tell our story in whole. No one will ever understand what happened to us except ourselves and no one should expect to understand the genocide from any source, book or film. I wish there was a way our heart can speak and I don't know if anyone would understand its language. As for the blame, it is a waste of time to blame the West or the UN, all we could do is to tell the story in order to educate the World. This is still happening in Sudan, and people still say "never again", why is that? My answer is that we are not economically significant in this World. If we had oil or other wealth, BBC would have covered our story. What the Rwanda and other poor countries/ethnicity at risk of being exterminated should do is to work hard, study science and be economically sisgnificant in the World. Unless this happens, the genocide will happen again and again, no matter how many times the story is told because it will be told after the fact.

Seraphine, MA

 
At 4:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The approach of the BBC to mix fiction with a genocide and to film in Rwanda raises important ethical questions. In particular painting the BBC in a positive light when in fact in the early months of the genocide there was very poor reporting is unfortunate. Yes Fergal Keane did go later on and Mark Doyle but in the early months the media coverage was woeful as highlighted in the multidonor evalaution of Rwanda.

The on going suffering of Rwandan Survirors, and the fear they continue to face in part linked to the Gacaha system, and the lack of sufficient witness protection measures serves to highlight how fragile the lives of surviors is in Rwandan today and how important it is that their is no tokanism towerds survivors, justice, reparations and real support and solidarity is what is needed.

These concerns I have are further magnified when I have seen the film makers taking a sort of copywrite in ENGLISH on a the rwandan surviors BLOG, is this relaly a seriuos ciommitment to voices being heard.

 
At 8:52 AM, Blogger Clare White said...

I'm glad this question was raised, despite the hysteria, and hope we see some public dialogue between Linda Melvern and Mark Caton-Jones about this. Linda has tirelessly worked to investigate the genocide for years and her assertions have the backing of a huge amount of research.

I haven't yet seen the film but really admire the direct attempt to tell the story of what happened and the use of generous resources to give the story a higher profile.

That said, the BBC do need to face up to the challenge of whether their funding of this film has attempted to rewrite history, particularly as a publically accountable body. The media have responsibilities and lessons to be learned from Rwanda, just as the British government and all of us do. While questions are simply deflected or denied (saying they were there later isn't really good enough for a genocide that is executed in just three months) we are going to keep failing in our responsibility to protect people. We see this in our current paralysis over Darfur.

'Seeing as you all care so much about the plight of the Rwandans, did ALL the crew work for free and will all the profits made by the film be going to Rwandan charities?'
- as an afterthought, while profits from the film could undoubtedly be very valuable in funding projects to achieve similar objectives (with particular attention given to survivors), the last thing Africa needs is a continuation of the cheap, charitable intent which keeps them as recipients of aid rather than treating them as grown-up human beings.

I hope and am sure that this film gives a sense of what a beautiful country Rwanda is and that with its multi-lingual, gorgeous population it is an excellent location for more films - the new South Africa, but safer!

 
At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please read The Observer 26th March and Fergal Keane's article which refutes all the wrongheaded allegations made in the previous week's paper. The BBC were there and were reporting the genocide.

 
At 4:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read that things like that are happening in Cabinda territory, the considered northern province of Angola and Darfur. The UN should not let conflicts whatever small to re-happen again in Africa. Even there are only few people that are being killed, the UN should find out and come out with solutions to avoid tears in the world. We hope that things like those happen remain history for Rwanda and for the intire World. My sorrow to those who lost relatives and families members.

 
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