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PBS Home Video presents

Ghosts of Rwanda (2004)

"We've got to recognize that each one of us...there's such a potential for good and there's such a potential for evil."- Carl Wilkens, Adventist Church aid worker

Stars: Kofi Annan, Madeline Albright, Romeo Dallaire, Anthony Lake, Carl Wilkens, Philippe Gaillard
Director: Greg Barker

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (graphic imagery of genocide)
Run Time: 01h:56m:21s
Release Date: 2005-05-10
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

I was reluctant to review this title. After writing a piece on Hotel Rwanda, I felt I had my fill of genocide. It's a topic that one does not want to endure on a consistent basis. Indeed, even talking about Terry George's film as a work of cinema was somewhat difficult. The issues addressed in such works go beyond cinematography, acting, sound, directing, and all the other technical aspects that formulate a film. Being an admirer of Frontline, I swallowed my reluctance and took Ghosts of Rwanda, an entry in PBS's long-running documentary series. My discomfort is a small price to pay to help this important piece gain more exposure.

Ghosts of Rwanda is a superb examination of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which nearly a million Tutsis were murdered by extremist Hutu militias and civilians. It was a massacre of massive proportions, and certainly not the first. The evil required to commit such an atrocity is unspeakable. We can deny the use of the term "evil" all we like, but what else can inspire such acts? I see no other explanation that fits. Innocents were slaughtered by guns, machetes, and hatred with dizzying speed. Unlike Hotel Rwanda, director Greg Barker's piece chooses to show these acts in gruesome detail.

This two-hour journey contains bone chilling stories that infuriate, move, frustrate, and horrify. These accounts come from reporters, diplomats, aid workers and others, including Gen. Romeo Dallaire. Leader of the UN Peacekeeping force in country during the genocide, his comments are frank, candid, and filled with the pain of what he experienced. Though his superiors in New York refused to offer support, Dallaire and his men stayed, creating safe havens, including the famed Hotel Des Milles Collines, the site of Paul Rusesabagina's bravery (Paul is not featured here). If they could not fight, Dallaire sought to negotiate a cease fire between the Hutus and the approaching Tutsi rebels. Upon meeting with the Hutu leaders, whose clothes were spattered with blood, he felt as though he was not meeting with human beings; he was face to face with evil. His efforts saw some level of success, but in the face of such death, they seemed futile. As a result, Dallaire stands a broken man (see Shake Hands With the Devil for more information).

The unwillingness to intervene on the part of the UN, the United States, and the world at large is a central focus here, and rightly so. Instead of sending the help that was so desperately needed, we were subjected to the absurdity of State Dept. spokesperson Christine Shelly debating the use of the term "genocide." Despite the pleas of Dallaire, Kofi Annan called for the avoidance of armed conflict at any cost, even when Dallaire was equipped to raid a Hutu arms cache. Annan and Madeline Albright offer their thin statements of reconciliation; hindsight is indeed 20/20. Frontline's list of horrendous acts unfortunately goes beyond the evil of the Hutu extremists; the world knew what was going on, and sinned by silence.

Even in the midst of such sadness, beams of heroism and deeds of goodness shine through: Adventist Church aid worker Carl Wilkens saved more than the entire US government; UN Captain Mbaye Diagne single-handedly saved hundreds of Tutsis through wit, charm and bravery; US Embassy workers smuggled out Tutsis, dubbing them honorary Americans, even as the Belgian forces withdrew with orders to only evacuate non-Rwandans; Red Cross representative Philippe Gaillard offers a story of life from death; two unarmed UN guards kept armed militia at bay, protecting a church filled with Tutsis; the list goes on.

Are they enough? At the very least, they are a testament to the power of the individual. It seems singular acts were the only thing that saved lives. When the wheels of bureaucracy are at their worst, we have an obligation to stand up. Then we can avoid hearing the empty, postmortem words of world leaders.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The documentary is presented in nonanamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen. I find this baffling. Wasn't this program shot in 16:9 for the purpose of HDTV transmission? The video is still very good, varying in quality due to a variety of source material.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is a clear Dolby 2.0 mix, but some noticeable squawks intrude on the track a few times; they sound like audio glitches. Strange.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The only extra is a text screen pointing the viewer to Frontline's companion website. Chaptering is minimal, and there are no subtitles. I don't have a problem with a lack of extras, but I wish this had some subtitle/audio options for non-English viewers, making this accessible to as many people as possible.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

If you felt Hotel Rwanda was too sanitized, Frontline's superbly comprehensive documentary will fill in the gaps. This is the ideal companion piece. PBS's DVD is barebones, and somewhat lacking in quality. Don't let that stop you from seeing this important account of genocide, and the world's failure to act.

Matt Peterson 2005-05-11