Shooting Dogs and Familia

Shooting Dogs and Familia

Many will criticize Shooting Dogs for telling the story of the 1994 Rwandan genocide from the perspective of white men. But by doing so, and focusing in on the reactions and decisions of a wide-eyed young British aid worker, a Belgian UN commanding officer and a resolutely devout Catholic priest protecting thousands of Tutsis inside a Kigali secondary school, the film represents an incredibly powerful condemnation of Western impotency.

Yes, it’s designed to make you feel bad, powerless and weak, incapable of changing what you see unfolding in graphic detail on screen. In that sense, Shooting Dogs is highly manipulative. Because of its content, though, and because of the performance director Michael Caton-Jones elicits from veteran English actor John Hurt, I’m willing to forgive it.

Hurt plays Father Christopher, a Catholic priest whose faith has been tempered by his 20 years in Africa. He runs the Ecole Technique Officielle in Kigali, a school temporarily housing a detachment of Belgian UN soldiers. New at the school is Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), the epitome of the English private school boy. He’s come to Africa for all the right reasons: he wants to somehow “give back”, to “make a difference.” What young Joe could never have possibly foreseen though is that, by coming to Kigali, he’s walked directly into the middle of what will soon be hell. When the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana (as the Hutu President of Burundi) is shot down on April 6, 1994, the extremist Hutu militias, who have been amassing weapons and glutting themselves on the hateful RTLM radio programmes, go insane. Before he can say “Marmite,” the school is inundated with thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. They need food and fuel, but all Father Christopher seems concerned about is conducting mass. And the UN soldiers? They’re in Rwanda to help implement the previous peace agreement. They can’t do a thing about the swelling horde of bloodthirsty men on the other side of the school’s fence.

As the situation escalates, Joe, Father Christopher and the head of the UN detachment are forced to question what they believe and hold dear. “What does your faith rest on?” the script indirectly asks. “And what is the value of staying if you’re incapable of providing the real help that people so badly need?”

Co-writer and producer David Belton was a BBC news cameraman on location in Rwanda in 1994. In the film’s press notes he expresses guilt over the speed with which he left the country when the going got tough. Throughout the film, we see how white foreign workers are bussed out, leaving the situation of the Tutsis in the school more and more tenuous. We see Tutsi men approach UN workers, asking that the children be shot rather than face Hutu machetes. We see Joe and Father Christopher witness horrific acts of violence and hear the Belgian general talk about how his parents hid Jews from Nazi capture during World War II. And then we watch as Joe and the UN soldiers leave the Ecole, and how the seemingly drugged militia falls on the now wholly undefended Tutsis massed inside. That guilt that Belton felt pervades every frame of Shooting Dogs. If you don’t feel bad yet, it says, just wait, you will. Given the events that are depicted here, and the fact that the developed world will no doubt continue to encounter Rwandas for a long time to come, that’s not such a bad thing.

* * * * *

You’ve got to admire the bravery of first-time Quebeçoise filmmaker Louise Archambault. Her feature film Familia explores a question that’s bedevilled some of the world’s greatest narrative artists—how one generation passes its foibles on to the next.

Familia opens with Archambault exploring a baby’s pre-natal world. A soothing but authoritative voice begins to talk about how a person’s DNA is a map of human history. “What is it exactly that a parents passes on to their child?” the voice asks. Is it temperament? Or simply a list of traits?

This opening sequence demands either the maintenance of its scholarly tone or a skewering of it. What we get instead is a starkly realist look at the lives of a free-spirited gambling addict and her 14-year-old daughter. It’s an amusing juxtaposition.

As is the case with all family sagas, the storyline is a tad complicated, but it goes something like this: unable to deal with the fact that her abusive husband and boss is holding back her paycheques, Michele (the aforementioned gambling addict, played by Sylvia Moreau) packs her daughter, Marguerite (Mylene St-Sauveur), into the car and hits the road. Michele wants to go see her sister in California but, needing some cash to get there, she decides to stop in on her old childhood friend Janine (Macha Grenon), an anally-retentive interior designer whose brother, in an act of youthful indescretion, fathered Marguerite and then refused to claim responsibility. Janine is initially afraid her own sheltered daughter Gabrielle will come under Michele and Marguerite’s negative influence. In the end, she acquiesces, even going so far as to give Michele a job. Obviously, Janine and Michele struggle a bit at first, but gradually they discover a symbiotic balance: Janine lends Michele’s life some much-needed order, while Michele’s boxercise videos help Janine get her deep-seated lead out.

It’s messy, but up to this point, the acting and writing are sufficiently strong to hold Archambault’s film together. Then everything goes to pot. Michele starts blowing all the money Janine has given her on slot machines and Marguerite discovers she’s mysteriously pregnant. When I say “mysteriously,” I’m not kidding. Marguerite swears she’s never done the deed and develops a sudden interest in the Virgin Mary. This sudden plot turn is wholly unnecessary. There’s more. Suddenly, it’s also clear that Janine’s husband (who’s always “away on business”) is a duplicitous bigamist. Discovering this, Janine begins to befriend his other wife, a young English woman across town, ultimately concocting a wholly unnecessary (though admittedly hilarious) revenge scenario. By the end, all the interesting mother-daughter stuff gets buried under the mystery of this virgin pregnancy and the comedy of a victim’s revenge.

It’s really too bad. Archambault can write and direct dialogue, she just hasn’t learned to manage a feature-length story yet. Familia got a lot of favourable notices at TIFF last year (it won the CityTV Award for Best Canadian First Feature and it was part of Canada’s Top Ten), so we can expect Archambault to be around for some time. Let’s hope that next time she ditches the heavy-handed intro and the virgin births.

Shooting Dogs opens Friday at Canada Square (2200 Yonge St., 416-646-0444) and Familia opens Friday at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St., 416-646-0444).