One of the elements somewhat lacking in “Hotel Rwanda,” as fine as that film was, was a sense of the broader context in which its heroic story occurred. This documentary provides some of what was missing in that regard. “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire” is a penetrating, as well as poignant, study of the Canadian general who was in charge of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in the African country during the time of the genocide. He was sent to insure that the fragile accord recently achieved between Tutsi and moderate Hutu leaders would be implemented. But, as becomes clear from the combination of historical footage and Dallaire’s present-day recollections, his undersized contingent was never sufficient to deter the radical Hutu element from undertaking the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus that they had long planned, and it was in any event hamstrung by restrictions imposed on it from above and the fact that, once the forces suffered casualties themselves, most countries ordered their troops home.. When the killing began, the general failed, despite his desperate efforts, to quell the violence by persuading the western powers to intervene more effectively; their only act was to send in troops to evacuate their own nationals, leaving the Rwandans to fend for themselves. Although he and his tiny force worked to save as many people as possible, Dallaire’s been haunted by the failure of his command, and the mass murder he was unable to prevent, ever since.

The occasion for documenting this unhappy history was Dallaire’s return to Rwanda in 2004 for the tenth anniversary memorial to the tragedy, which provides the occasion for his effort to come to terms with what happened and offer a personal apology. Peter Raymont follows the general’s circuit about the country, to places where (as in Cambodia) large collections of skulls are preserved as a reminder of what happened, to sites of minor triumphs amidst the darkness, and to the U.N. headquarters where ten years before his staff had been more hostages than saviors (and where he is, ironically, initially refused admittance). There’s also an encounter with a showboating Belgian politician at a news conference, a man who accuses Dallaire of not having done enough to rescue a group of Belgian soldiers who were killed during the melee, and not having shown proper attention to their survivors–a considerable irony since, as the background material demonstrates, it was the Belgians, as colonial overlords, who encouraged the division between Hutus and Tutsis that was the direct cause of the 1994 massacre. Happily that episode is followed by a reunion with his old comrades in arms which is a far more pleasant experience.

“Shake Hands With the Devil” ultimately has equal measures of horrifying historical information and satisfying personal drama. On the one hand it provides a piercingly powerful understanding of the Rwandan genocide, for which–as Dallaire and others make abundantly clear–many have responsibility: the radical Hutus, of course, but also the French government, the Catholic Church, and the Clinton administration, all of which might have done far more to prevent the slaughter (and whose later protestations of ignorance of what was happening are dismissed out of hand). But it’s also a journey of redemption for Dallaire and his wife, allowing a man described by so many as good and honorable finally to come to terms with a past that was painful, to be sure, but in which he played a noble role despite his failure to achieve what he most wanted. The film works as a searing indictment of the tragedy that occurs when good men choose to do nothing, and as a portrait of one man who deserves respect for having tried to confront evil head on against terrible odds.