Abhishek Srivastava - 33 weeks ago
Many consider Michael Caton Jones’ low-key film a better film than Hotel Rwanda but bad distribution and comparisons with the Academy Award nominated film sealed the fate of the film. If you haven’t seen the film, the time to see the film is NOW.
(John Hurt in a still from Shooting Dogs)
The life of Michael Caton-Jones - the man responsible for discovering Leonardo DiCaprio from a crowd of 2000 actors - is full of contradictions. In the early days of his career when he was busy directing the Liam Neeson starrer Rob Roy in the Scottish Highlands, Mel Gibson started production on another Scottish legend. The summer of 1994 was also the period when Scotland was at the helm of two big budget films dealing with two Scottish legends. The very next year Gibson’s Braveheart stole the thunder from Caton-Jones’s swashbuckler film by winning five Academy Awards during its 68th edition. The only consolation for Rob Roy came from Tim Roth who earned a nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.
The second time, Caton-Jones witnessed such a phase was during the making of his lesser known but brilliant film Shooting Dogs. This time it was a two pronged attack. The day Shooting Dogs released in theatres was also the day when another film directed by him – the sequel to Basic Instinct, hit theatres. The other attack came from Hotel Rwanda. Shooting Dogs, despite its true-to-plot and gritty nature was compared to Hotel Rwanda (released in 2004) and there it simply failed to match the charisma generated by three Oscar nominations of Hotel Rwanda.
(Clare-Hope Ashitey in a still from Shooting Dogs)
Thirteen years later, the film stands tall vis-a-vis Hotel Rwanda and has gathered a steady following though it’s a pity not many have seen the film. Shooting Dogs is often considered to be Michael Caton-Jones’ best work but was overlooked by many because of a plot resemblance with Hotel Rwanda. The film dealt with a true incident that transpired in Rwanda when the country was engulfed by the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic riots in 1994. It talked about a Catholic priest and an English teacher when they get stranded in a Kigali school because of the ethnic riots and tensions. When released, the film was criticized for taking a view of an African story through a white lens. But truth is Michael has done full justice to the character of Marie that Claire-Hope Ashitey portrays in the film. He also succeeds in bringing out a compelling portrait of UN officers and reporters in the film.
MCJ harboured a very strong conviction about the script of Shooting Dogs and so consumed was he by the film’s plot that he took a pay cut and went to Rwanda to film his passion project. The film was made for BBC Films. Though the film was acclaimed by critics it was also derided by scholars of Rwanda genocide. The film was based on a book by BBC producer David Belton who had earlier worked as a reporter-cameraman for BBC’s Newsnight in 1994 during the genocide and the experience he gathered during his stay in Rwanda culminated in the form of a book. After premiering at TIFF in 2005, the film later in 2006 won the Grand Prize at the Heartland Film Festival.
(A still from Shooting Dogs featuring John Hurt and Hugh Dancy)
The genocide was completely overlooked by the western media and MCJ was sort of taken aback with this aloofness. The title of the film also refers to the action of UN soldiers shooting at the stray dogs. Since the soldiers were not allowed to fire at Hutu extremists, the firing at stray dogs denotes the chaotic situation that had engulfed the country. The genocide resulted in death of close to 800,000 people in 100 days.
The inception of Shooting Dogs lies in the weariness that MCJ suffered after he got tired of the commercial trappings of Hollywood. MCJ was looking for opportunities to make meaningful cinema and David’s book presented him an opportunity. So desperate was he to get out of the Hollywood rut that when he took the decision to make the film, he had virtually no money for its production. “I had a young child and rent to pay and I went off to Rwanda for six months. I was completely broke and had to take anything that came in,” Michael had said in an interview. According to him, “The films that you care about are the ones that are made with love and not much money.” The escape film took six months to be made and the total cost came to $3 million. Unlike Hotel Rwanda (which was shot in South Africa with local actors), Shooting Dogs was filmed in real locations of Rwanda and the end credit reveals many survivors of the genocide as part of the film crew. The film used materials from the interviews of the genocide survivors conducted by the African Rights Watch. The character of father Christopher (played by John Hurt) was based on a Bosnian priest. The film centres around what happened at the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO) in Kigali during second week of April in 1994. The film avoided the traditional Hollywood treatment of stories and followed a neo-documentary pattern.
During the time of its release, the film was sold in every country except the United States and that had peeved the director. The film was later released in the US as Beyond the Gates. The film is a brutal watch and deals with the tragedy from the eyes of outsiders and white liberal guilt. John Hurt in an earlier interview had remarked that his ‘family connections’ helped him in playing the role of the priest. “My father was a Church of England clergyman. My uncle was the head of the Bush Brotherhood in Queensland in Australia. My brother was a convert to Catholicism while he was at Cambridge and he became a monk.” MCJ has successfully elicited natural performances from actors like Hugh Dancy, Nicola Walker and Dominique Horwitz. Shooting Dogs is a film which begs for a watch. Its pity that the whenever the film will be referenced, comparison with Hotel Rwanda will always crop up. And that is simply unfair.
(Shooting Dogs is currently playing on myNK)
Sign up to get access to the stories behind films and conversations on cinema worldwide.