An incredible movie and very moving. For someone like me who knows almost nothing about events in Rwanda and Somalia over the last 15 years, this is shocking stuff.
This is no history lesson though. We are left entirely in the dark about the root causes and political decisions that lead to the two catastrophes into which the protagonist, Dr. James Orbinski, put himself: anarchy and famine in Somalia, and 100 days of genocide in Rwanda (which, according to the film, killed approx 800,000 people). No, there's not much political analysis asking why things got so bad, rather the film asks "how do we act once things get really bad?", and the internally raging Orbinski is our proxy moral compass as he revisits his past. Describing one desperate scene where his team saved a young girl and her dying mother from "genocidaires" while dodging bullets, he frowns and says "This isn't heroism, this is normal". Trying to understand the killing he asks "Would I kill to save my family?", then imagining the scene, replies "Yes I would".
The film probes the events in Rwanda and Somalia by looking at the effects on the people who were there on the ground, both survivors and NGO workers (though not the genocidaires, who are not encountered on Orbinski's return visits, at least not on camera). These meetings between Orbinski and his former colleagues and patients are the raw material from which we instinctively try to make sense of the killing. But it's not possible. If there are reasons for it they are not here. Instead we are left to absorb the characters and their stories, and dwell on the awesome cruelty that we nearly all blithely ignored at the time.
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