shooting in rwanda

They have made the first film about the Rwandan genocide to be shot in Rwanda, and the experience both gratified and scarred them. John Byrne meets John Hurt and director Michael Caton Jones to talk about the making of Shooting DogsIt was difficult to tell, at first, that there had been a recent genocide in Rwanda, John Hurt says. “The genocide is not near the surface. Africans are very good at being secretive. It's all sunshine and extrovert behaviour and so on, but what goes on between Africans is incredibly secret.”
Yet when asked, they opened up. “There was no difficulty whatsoever to get them to talk about it. I've never listened so much in my life. There was not much you could say. You'd say, ‘I'm terribly sorry, but I can't offer you anything.' They were just very happy for us to listen and to do what we were doing in making the film. It was very important for them that the rest of the world saw.
“But they're doing incredibly well, much better than you'd have reason to believe. It's far from a healthy nation, of course, but it is extraordinary how functional it is. It's a lot more functional than a lot of families in the west that have every reason to be more functional, but aren't. I don't think I'll probably ever make a film quite like that.”
Coming from John Hurt, that's quite a statement: he's been making films since the 1960s, including roles in The Elephant Man, 1984, Midnight Express and A Man for All Seasons, among many others.
Shooting Dogs tells the story of the École Technique Officielle, a school run by priests and home to a company of Belgian UN para-commandos, which became a place of refuge for Tutsis and moderate Hutus once the genocide began in 1994. After five days the UN left, abandoning the Rwandan refugees. Within hours of leaving, most of the 2,500 Rwandans had been slaughtered.
Shooting Dogs was the first film about the genocide to be shot in Rwanda, and featured actors and crew members who lost relatives, were injured, or had to hide under the bodies of family members to escape being killed by their fellow countrymen. John Hurt plays the lead role as Fr Christopher, a white, English Catholic priest who is trapped in the school with the Rwandans. He believes that it was important to have a Western character in the central part.
“I think it's essential (to have a white lead). I know Africa quite a bit over the last 20 years – I've got to know it. I've lived there, and I built a house in Kenya. If we were to make a film by Africans about Africa, we wouldn't understand a word. It's such a different head-set, it's such a different conditioning, and they can't understand our conditioning, really, either. I think it [the film] needed a conduit.”
He feels guilty about what happened in Rwanda and the fact that the West did virtually nothing to stop the genocide.
“I was aware of it when it happened. We were all aware of what happened, but I confess to not having done anything more than anybody else. It was at a distance, and you thought, ‘God I hope that things would get better'.
“Nowadays we have so much communication, worldwide, we know almost immediately about something when it happens. When you take on something like (the Rwandan genocide) and you come face to face with it, there is an almost inevitable feeling of guilt because you feel you should have done more, you should have done something. You can feel exactly the same thing in front of the television, you can go, ‘I'm sitting here in this country and I'm really not doing much'. You almost feel ashamed for enjoying what you do.”
The production of the film was emotional for all concerned. Its director, Michael Caton-Jones, who made Rob Roy and Scandal, says: “When I left Rwanda, I broke down. When I was filming, you're involved in the making of it, and you're keeping things at arm's (length) because you have to be focused, but when I was leaving that was when it hit me, the enormity of it. I was weeping like a baby at the airport. I didn't want to go. It was such an intense experience making the film and working with the team, that I felt I can't leave them like this, but I had to. I was very upset. I was not alone.”
He encountered very little bitterness on the part of the Rwandans towards  him and the film's makers. “We didn't come across any – not in the slightest. Well, it's difficult to generalise, because obviously, there were some people who were, quite rightly, very sensitive about the genocide. Some people were questioning the propriety of making anything. They'd say that they didn't think it was right to make a drama about something that's so recent and so intense, and is some person's reality. But the overwhelming (response) was people saying, ‘you have to get this film out, you have to tell this story, so that hopefully this won't happen again'.”
Like John Hurt, he thinks it was necessary to tell the story from the point of view of a white person. “There's a line in the film, an unpalatable, uncomfortable truth, in which a journalists says, ‘I was in Bosnia, and I saw these dead white people, and I said, “That could be my mum”, but here, it's just dead Africans'. It's an unpalatable truth, but it is a truth nonetheless. It's kind of human nature, we think ‘they'. It's a kind of lazy racism, where we see them as black first, human second. I was trying in a way to say, it doesn't really matter about the colour of a person's skin, we're all in this together. It was very important thematically.
“It was a question I was never asked in Rwanda (why it was necessary to cast a white man as the lead). It wasn't important to them. It's a simple question but it has quite a complex answer. There are some things more important than the colour of a person's skin – some issues.
“They talk about before the war, during the war, after the war. Everything is framed in those terms of reference. When they talk about it, and it always comes up, they ask, ‘why did nobody do anything about it, why did nobody care? Why did nobody know?' It's really a constant thing that you get from them. I believe that the real stories, and there are many, will only emerge when the Rwandans make films themselves. There is no film infrastructure there, there is no tradition of it. In the meanwhile, this is what we could do.
“And we didn't make this for Rwandan consumption. It was made for Western consumption, for people who know nothing about what happened in 1994. The best way to take a Western audience into the story was to show it through the experience of Western people. It really was a simple as that.”
One theory blames the colonial rule of the Belgians in Rwanda, which differentiated strongly between Hutu and Tutsi, for sowing the seed that lead to the genocide. But there is not a strong sense of this among Rwandans.
“It explains a lot for us (Westerners), historically,” says Michael Caton Jones. “But I think that the Rwandans on a daily basis are faced with overcoming and living with the trauma that they went through, and with putting food on the table. When you've got to earn a living and build a house and look after your children, that takes a lot of the more bourgeois elements of analysis out of the way.
“When you've to go and get the water and firewood, and that's your daily way of living, you don't have time to debate the finer points of things.”
Although he describes the Rwandans as doing “far better than anybody could expect” in the aftermath of the genocide, tensions are still discernible.
“As a visitor, by the very nature of that you can't get that feel, but you can make observations and you can talk to people and you can get a general picture. It's very safe. The government rules with an iron hand, and that's quite right, because it has to. It's one thing to say, ‘We're all Rwandans now', but it's another thing to feel that you're living on the same street as the guy who killed your parents. These are the underlying tensions and we just can't imagine what that is like. It functions as a society better than it has any right to, because if you're living in that proximity to killers daily it must be really difficult.”
Very few films have been made about the Rwandan genocide, but Michael Caton Jones feels that this is not because there is no interest in what happened.
“I think it takes a long time for events to filter through history... When things happen, you get the immediate impact, the visceral impact, say, killing and what have you, but to put it in historical context just takes time. And once you've got historical context, you can examine the causes and the repercussions of that much better. And I think it takes an amount of time because it was an unimaginable horror that happened there. Everyday, you'd hear another story about what had happened, and you begin to get humbled that these people were still standing and functioning, because I don't think I could.”
At the screening of Shooting Dogs at the Dublin International Film Festival in February, Michael Caton Jones was asked what film he had made next, after Shooting Dogs. The answer was Basic Instinct 2, and the audience, and Caton Jones, laughed at the incongruity.
“It's very gratifying and rewarding making a film like Shooting Dogs, but it doesn't pay the rent,” he says. “If you want to make a film like that, you've got to do another one for more money. And I have a family, and I have to feed them, and I have to pay the rent, and sometimes I've got to do films which allow me to do Shooting Dogs. I want to do more films like it, but it's very difficult to get them financed. It's easier to raise money for a $70 million film than it is to raise money for a $5 million film.”
Both Michael Caton-Jones and John Hurt have kept in touch with friends they made in Rwanda.
“We kept in touch with everybody, and hopefully I'm going to go back to the screening of the film in the stadium in Kigali, which I have mixed feelings about,” says Michael Caton-Jones. “I'm really desperate to go back, but I know it will be difficult, because of the accuracy with which we made the film. The other films that have been made about Rwanda were less affecting to them, because they weren't made there (in Rwanda). They understand that that was a more Hollywood version, but this, because the approach was to make it as accurate as possible and the texture really gave it the veracity that they would bring to it, I think the reaction is going to be a much more potent one, and I'm a bit nervous about that.”
The name Shooting Dogs comes from the fact that the UN soldiers were given permission to shoot dogs which were eating the bodies of genocide victims, but were not allowed to intervene to stop the genocide.π
Shooting Dogs opens in cinemas on 31 March