I urge you to go see a powerful documentary that is in the theatres right now called “Shake Hands with the Devil.” This gripping film details the experiences of Romeo Dallaire, the retired Canadian general who was in charge of the United Nations mission to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. About 800,000 Tutsis were brutally murdered by the ruling Hutus during this brief period, and the rest of the world did absolutely nothing to help. Dallaire was not in good shape following the conflict, and after a suicide attempt in the late 90s he finally sought treatment for the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that resulted from his time in Africa. The documentary is based on his book of the same title and follows him back to Rwanda for an excruciating trip to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the genocide. It is so unusual to hear a former official accept responsibility for a failed mission while also properly indicting the governments, organizations, and political jockeying that made his goals in Rwanda impossible to attain. This is an amazing man who ultimately does not shy away from confronting his demons or facing the relatives of the people he was unable to save.
When Dallaire speaks in front of an enormous crowd at an event to mark the anniversary, he sadly admits to the assembled Rwandans that the superpowers simply had no interest in them. While tens of thousands of troops were dispatched to white European Yugoslavia, virtually none were sent to Rwanda. The small country offered no strategic interest, no oil, nothing to buy or sell—all it had was black Africans and, as he acknowledges hearing at the U.N., “perhaps too many of those anyway.” There are so many ways the killing could have been avoided and then stopped but no one gave a damn. In America and much of the world, people were obsessing about the O.J. Simpson trial, a complete non-story, while close to a million people were being murdered in a systematic and highly organized campaign. The Belgians, Rwanda’s former colonial power, come across very badly in the documentary, starting with their insistence on separating the Rwandans on their I.D. cards into the two groups in the first place. The Catholic Church was also complicit in the crime but there is plenty of blame to go around.
It’s interesting that 10 years later we seem to be trying to expiate our guilt with a rash of films about the genocide, including a recent Frontline special and the studio film “Hotel Rwanda.” It’s great that we’re now being educated about the tragedy but for the Rwandans it’s all a day late and a dollar short. Despite his attempts to deal with his past, General Dallaire is still prone to deep depression and hallucinatory episodes where he literally sees the mountains of cut up corpses of men, women, and children. “I can’t sleep,” he admits towards the end of the film. “I can’t stand the loudness of silence.”
I don’t want to draw any connections between mass murder and the death of one beloved celebrity, but within minutes of coming out of the documentary tonight my thoughts moved from the loudness of silence to the “Sounds of Silence.” I was shocked and saddened to hear that actress Anne Bancroft died yesterday of cancer. I had no idea she was even ill and I’m doubly grateful that I went to that recent screening of “The Graduate” a few weeks ago at the Academy and got to witness her brilliance with an enthusiastic crowd that included the filmmakers. Now I understand why they made no mention of why she wasn’t there that night especially since I’ve often seen her and Mel Brooks in the audience at other Academy events. The last time we saw her in person was a few years ago and she seemed so wonderful and kind, and still extraordinarily beautiful. Of course Anne Bancroft's amazing work in “The Miracle Worker” can instantly send me into an uncontrollable fit of hysteria. She gave so many great performances: “The Pumpkin Eater,” “To Be or Not To Be,” “’Night Mother,” “Agnes of God,” even her turn at Mary Magdalene in the TV version of “Jesus of Nazareth.” I was very touched by her small role as the kindly actress who befriends John Merrick in “The Elephant Man" and I even enjoyed her appearances in lesser films such as "Demetrius and the Gladiators," "The Hindenburg," and "G.I. Jane." She was always a class act, turning in superb performances even when the films themselves sucked.
In 1976 I was visiting New York and staying at the Mayflower Hotel near Columbus Circle. One morning as I left the hotel I noticed a film crew setting up. They were filming a brief scene between Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft for the wonderful film, “The Turning Point,” with the side entrance of the Mayflower standing in for a dance studio. I dropped all my plans for that day and spent hour after hour watching them shoot the scene in which MacLaine and Bancroft meet in the street and hug. The best part was watching the two actresses in between takes. They clearly loved each other and were having a great time on the film even though I couldn’t believe how boring and time-consuming the whole process was.
As AmbivaBlog said tonight in her moving tribute, “There are people you're just glad are there. You may not think of them often, but it's always a pleasure to be reminded of their existence, and of the sort of bedrock satisfaction it gives you even when you're not thinking about them.” I so agree that Anne Bancroft fits this description. Did you know Bancroft’s real name was Anna Maria Italiano? And that when she spoke in her real voice she sounded like a truck driver from the Bronx? I’m just grateful that her film voice and magnificent performances are forever planted in my brain.
I know I just said I wouldn’t make a connection, but now that it’s in my head, Simon & Garfunkel’s song seems like a bitterly appropriate comment on the world’s reaction to the Rwandan genocide.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
In the wells of silence.