Soldiering On

Our conversation with Patrick Reed, director of "Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children" on his new film with Romeo Dallaire.
By: /
April 25, 2013

Many are familiar with Romeo Dallaire's tragic experiences in Rwanda, hauntingly described in his book Shake Hands with the Devil. In the film Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children, Dallaire confronts his past and returns to Rwanda to advocate for the end of the use of child soldiers. His mission to connect with child soldiers and bring the deep complexities of their experiences to light takes him to the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and across North America. We spoke to director Patrick Reed about what it was like to work with Dallaire.

This is the second documentary that you’ve made with Senator Romeo Dallaire. Did you gain new insight into his character during the course of filming? What kind of impact do you think Dallaire has on most viewers and why?

As we experienced in Shake Hands with the Devil, there is something uniquely compelling about Dallaire – his charisma, candour, and experience captivates an audience. At least in Canada, we’re not used to hearing military commanders – retired or otherwise – speak so openly and frankly and critically, both about the global system, and about their own personal struggles.

We knew going in that this of course would be a film about child soldiers, but with Dallaire as the accessible entry-point: why he’s consumed by this issue; what he’s learned and is learning; and why, after all the horrors he’s seen, he remains driven.

On a practical level, Dallaire was keenly aware that it has been far too long since he’s been on-the-ground, getting his “boots dirty,” as he would describe it.

To paraphrase Dallaire: “When I was in the military, I always hated the armchair generals, and always thought that would never be me. Now, I’m trying to lead a movement against the use of child soldiers, but I’ve been too busy or too distracted or whatever to actually interact with child soldiers. Sure, I spend lots of time with ex-child soldiers in North America, but they are the success stories, the leaders who have already turned their lives around. I need to be where the action is actually happening, where things are still unresolved.”

The biggest insight into his character is actually an obvious one and almost trite: generals never retire. Even though he left the military many years ago, and is now a Canadian senator, seeing Dallaire back in central Africa felt like watching someone age in reverse. For all the hard traveling and emotionally draining situations we were in, it seemed like Dallaire got younger each day.

What do you think the former child soldiers interviewed in the film got out of being involved in this project? How did their motivations for participating vary, and to what extent were their emotional drivers similar or different to Dallaire's? 

I always hesitate to make a blanket statement about why people agree to be involved in a project, since their motivations are diverse and complex.

Also, for this film, I intentionally avoided conducting formal interviews with the former child soldiers. The reason for this was largely practical: we often had a limited amount of time in each place, and the focus of the film was following Dallaire through the region, engaging with and occasionally enraging people he met.

In many instances, Dallaire played the role of the interviewer—or to be more accurate, he was the one driving the conversation with the former child soldiers.

Dallaire is uniquely suited to the task. As a former military man, he interacted with child soldiers and their adult commanders in ways that I could not.

I’m paraphrasing slightly here, but Dallaire described the encounters somewhat like this: “These children have been victimized – captured, drugged, desensitized to violence, they’ve killed, and many have been killed – but they were not one-dimensional victims. Often we invariably started talking about weapons and tactics and experiences they’ve had, many horrendous, of course, but some positive. Some even missed the military life – the camaraderie, and sense of power they felt holding a gun. And this fills them with overwhelming guilt. Well, you have to acknowledge this loss, and place it in context if you want to really change anything. For many of these kids, being in the military meant they were fed, and that they were out of their villages; they weren’t the dumb kid in the classroom anymore. We’ve got to find other alternatives for them. I’ve seen far too many well-meaning programs where organizations are trying to rehabilitate child soldiers by teaching them how to be cobblers in a society that doesn’t wear shoes. It’s not surprising that they end up reaching for a gun again and going back into the bush.”

I got the sense that Dallaire managed to win the trust of the former child soldiers because they were able to find some common ground and see themselves in each other, sharing intense feelings of guilt, betrayal, personal revulsion, destructive behavior, and yearning for a lost innocence.

In the film, Dallaire states that anything less than “decades of commitment” to resolving conflict situations is “a waste of rations.” Is this a realistic message to send to the international community today?

Dallaire’s statement is very realistic. And in this age of quick fixes and simplistic answers to complex questions, I find it refreshingly honest. Some might find it depressing, but I frankly find it inspiring. Here’s a man who clearly states in the film that the issue of child soldiers might not be “solved” in his lifetime, but he continues to engage and contribute to the struggle.

Yes, there are a number of things that can be done and are being done to ameliorate the situation of recruitment and quicken demobilization (the usual blend of carrot and stick), but most people on the ground will tell you that to solve the problem you need to end the conflict. And end the culture of impunity. And help societies rebuild, so people have more options and opportunities.

The movement for the abolition of slavery took decades and decades. Nuclear disarmament treaties also took decades to establish. The establishment of an international criminal court - decades. And so on.

Dallaire isn’t telling people what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. He’s not a salesman; he’s a leader. And that’s what the world needs right now—fewer salesmen and more leaders.

Does the problem of female children abducted into militias to serve as wives to soldiers get the attention it deserves as compared to that given to male children abducted or coerced into fighting?

No, few people know about the issue of female child soldiers, or if they do they expect that it’s limited in terms of numbers. Roughly 40 per cent of all child soldiers are female: some are involved in active fighting, some act as porters, cooks, medics, and “sex slaves” and “bush wives,” to use the terms often heard in the field.

How do you ideally envision your film shaping international perspectives on the work involved in halting and preventing the recruitment of child soldiers?

I’ve never been interested in making activist films for an activist audience. It’s rather easy – and to my mind, quite tedious – to prove a point to like-minded individuals; it’s much more challenging and rewarding to help an audience lose themselves in a story and then in the process find themselves.

Media representations of child soldiers in the African context often feed into “Dark Continent” stereotype: a place where life is nasty, brutish, and short; where barbarism is the norm; where people are so debased that they sacrifice their young. This is an extremely limited and limiting story that’s as horrific as it is repetitive.

In this telling, Western audiences sit in smug judgment. It may be uncomfortable viewing at times, but it is ultimately reassuring – it confirms their position of superiority in the world; reaffirms their stereotypes; at best, they feel pity, but never do they see themselves in the story.

The point of this film was to tell a compelling story that’s immersive, that’s transformational for the viewer, and that’s unsettling in all the right ways. Namely, your mind – as viewer – changes and changes again as you watch; you are attracted and leave fascinated by the story and subject matter not because of the horror but because of the complexity.

Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children  at Hot Docs:
April 27 at 5:00pm - Bloor
April 29 at 2:00pm - Hart House
May 5 at 5:30pm - Bell Lightbox

Also in the series


The Anatomy of the Organ Trade

Our conversation with Ric Esther Bienstock, director of Tales from the Organ Trade, about the morally ambiguous world of organ trafficking.

Killer Dilemmas

Our conversation with Dan Krauss, director of the Kill Team, on the stark choices that confront soldiers in war.

From Fear to Freedom

Our interview with Ann Shin, director of the The Defector: Escape from North Korea, about the risk and hardship North Korean defectors face.

Breaking the Banks

Our conversation with Corey Ogilvie, director of Occupy, on the social movement that may define our generation.

Identity Fusion

Our interview with Khoa Lê, director of the film Ba Noi, about coming to Canada and the family left behind.