Friday, April 18, 2008

Rwanda: Film Review - Beyond the Gates

Beyond the Gates is a film about the Rwandan genocide. It adds fictional characters to a real incident in order to create a story line that accurately portrays the horror of the genocide itself, but with emphasis on the stark moral dilemmas faced by westerners in the face of that evil.

The setting is Ecole Technique in Kigali where an elderly priest (played by John Hurt) and Christopher, an idealistic young Englishman (Hugh Dancy), are working in the weeks prior to the social cataclysm. Viewers see preparations for genocide via a slimy local councilman who makes lists of Tutsi families and checks on the small UN peacekeeping detachment housed at the school. When the troubles begin, the priest knows that hundreds of Tutsi will seek refuge behind his gates both because of the ostensible protection of the church in times of trial and on account of the real protection afforded by the peacekeepers.

The Tutsi come by the thousands as do several dozen Europeans. As the genocide unfolds beyond the gates the protagonists each venture out on errands of mercy only to discover the horror that awaits. Friendships are betrayed. Ethnic madness rules. Gangs of Interahamwe killers prance and chant and butcher. Meanwhile the issue of why the killings and why the indifference of the peacekeepers to it play out center stage. Ultimately, French troops arrive at the school, but only to evacuate the Europeans. The Belgian peacekeepers are ordered out shortly thereafter leaving the priest and teacher to their choices and Africans to their fates.

I (the reviewer) served as U.S. ambassador to Rwanda in the years just after the genocide. This film, which was shot in Rwanda and involved survivors of the Ecole Technique massacre, does accurately reflect the overall sense of doom during the execution of genocide. Yet, the story line is set up so as to highlight western shortcomings and frustrations in face of the killings rather than Rwandan ones. Identifying with the principle characters, viewers see the issues in understandable terms. Perhaps that is as it should be because we all need to reflect upon this catastrophe. Be aware that this is wrenching drama that contains some graphic scenes.

Other films about the genocide include: Ghosts of Rwanda (a documentary), Hotel Rwanda, Sometimes in April and the recently released Shake Hands with the Devil. The latter film is a cinematic treatment of General Dallaire’s (the UN Peacekeeping Force commander) book of the same name. It is a powerful drama, well acted and shot in Rwanda. It makes the case that the west – especially the UN Security Council – did not authorize actions to halt the genocide because it did not view the crisis as severe.

Note that Beyond the Gates, a 20th Century Fox film, was released eariler by the BBC as Shooting Dogs.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Opinion - Kenya must seize the moment!

I applaud the recent agreement signed by President Kibaki and now new Prime Minister Raila Odinga. This start to cooperation between warring camps bodes well for return to peace within the nation and the prospects for crafting more permanent solutions to long standing problems. But first, the two principals need to decide on a cabinet. Kenya especially needs dynamic ministers who can lead and act and translate noble sounding rhetoric into reality that improves the lot of the wanainchi.

Many wounds need salve. The tribal clashes that rendered the nation are mostly over – for the time being – but underlying issues of access to land, land ownership and freedom of movement and residence must be sorted out. Also, a new government must debate reparations for victims of conflict. Security forces have to cope with roving bands of tribal militia. And if the issues of returning to normal were not tough enough, Kenya must also cope with an economy devastated by the troubles. Many businesses are defunct, the transportation sector crippled, schooling interrupted, agricultural production halved and tourism all but halted. Additionally, thousands of internally displaced people require shelter, food and water.

Resolving these myriad issues will require determination, resources and political compromise, but that is the task before the new government. Outside help is certainly available, but it is incumbent upon the collective leadership of Kenya to take the lead. History (and the Kenyan people) will judge them on the record of their achievements.

Book Review - Acts of Faith

This is a review of a novel, Acts of Faith, by Philip Caputo. It was published by Vintage Books, NY, in 2005.

This novel set in Kenya and Sudan revolves around humanitarian efforts to aid stricken people in war torn southern Sudan. That is a large topic and author Caputo strives to include something for everyone. For example, the cast of characters include a jaundiced Kenyan soccer player searching for meaning; a vivacious white settler, who out of guilt, engages in good works; cynical mercenary pilots; a dew-eyed young missionary overwhelmed with Africa; a driven evangelist who is also a sharp businessman; a romantic SPLA commander and an Africa-seasoned, wise priest. There are many others, but those are central to the various plots that swirl around.

Themes in the novel include the logistics and economics of food aid, gun running, Kenyan bureaucratic corruption, slavery in Sudan, redemption by external Christian groups, sensationalist journalism, Janjaweed raids, the awful impact of warfare upon civilian populations, love, and lust.

The setting in Lokichokio (the gritty northwestern Kenyan base for Sudanese relief operations), Nairobi, and the Nuba mountains is authentic. Obviously well researched, Caputo realistically captures the feeling of the places that he describes well. Swahili usage was minimal, but accurate.

The reader will be overwhelmed as the various threads of stories make their appearance, but eventually they do coalesce into a coherent stream. The characters too start off as stereotypical profiles, but as the story moves along they too fill out and become more realistic.

The fate of the characters and the thrust of the plot aside, underlying questions being addressed in this novel are those of the utility and/or futility of western aid in catastrophic situations. Does such aid really help? Is it manipulated for private gain? Just what is the cost of such business? Morally, what is acceptable? And how to sort out motives? Does why folks engage really matter to recipients or only to the donor? Caputo does not provide any direct answers to such questions, but he does lay issues so that readers might consider them.

In conclusion, this was quite a readable and entertaining novel, indeed even a must read for those engaged in humanitarian operations or missionary undertakings.