Director : Terry George
Screenplay : Keir Pearson & Terry George
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Don Cheadle (Paul Rusesabagina), Sophie Okonedo (Tatiana Rusesabagina), Nick Nolte (Colonel Oliver), Joaquin Phoenix (Jack), Desmond Dube (Dube), David O'Hara (David), Cara Seymour (Pat Archer), Fana Mokoena (General Augustin Bizimungo), Hakeem Kae-Kazim (George), Tony Kgoroge (Gregoire)
When dealing with the worst atrocities in history, there is always the question of whether or not they are representable. That is, because an event such as the Holocaust is so enormous, so overpowering in its horror, no film can ever hope to capture it in its entirety. Thus, the event must be reduced--channeled in some way--and therein lies the rub. Does such sense-making bring needed clarity to history, or does the simplification and reduction obscure larger truths?
It is hard to get away from such questions while watching Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, which clearly owes a debt to Steve Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) in its approach to depicting genocide. Like Spielberg's film, Hotel Rwanda is not about genocide, but rather about the power of humanity epitomized in a single protagonist. Stanley Kubrick once remarked that Schindler's List was not about the Holocaust: "The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List was about six hundred people who don't." Such is the case here, as Hotel Rwanda is about the true story of how 1,200 members of the Tutsi tribe survived a 100-day killing spree in 1994 in which the rival Hutu tribe slaughtered some 800,000 men, women, and children.
Don Cheadle, in an enormously effective performance, plays Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the four-star Des Mille Collines Hotel in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali. It's not surprising that Paul was chosen as the center of the film, as he is one of the few heroes to emerge from the tragedy--a recognizable human face to anchor a story that is clearly meant to be uplifting. Already the subject of a BBC radio documentary and covered extensively in Philip Gourevitch's book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Paul is the perfect hero figure: a man who rose above his materialistic ambitions and became a savior through civility, rather than violence.
Until the spring of 1994, Paul had spent his professional life amassing social capital. The film's early passages show us how he knows the right people and aspires to the highest rungs of the social and economic ladder. He has "style," as he puts it, which means that he dresses like a European businessman, knows fine cigars and liquor, and can rub elbows with the international elite. Ironically, it is these attributes that turn him into an unlikely savior once Rwanda sinks into a bitter civil war in which the Hutu militia, inflamed by vitriolic rhetoric on the radio, begins to enact the systematic slaughter of all rival Tutsi.
The Des Mille Collines becomes a haven, and Paul does everything he can to keep it protected, particularly because his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is a Tutsi. He bribes, he cajoles, he makes phone calls--essentially anything that will buy him more time. He's not a superman, but he is smooth and well-connected, and that made all the difference. Of course, time is not on his side, as this particular historical event was made all the more disturbing by the international community's refusal to do anything to stop the genocide. Interestingly, though, the United Nations, which was withdrawing troops during the worst of it, is given a liberal face in the character of Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), who does everything short of outright disobeying orders in trying to help Paul's cause.
Hotel Rwanda is certainly a harrowing film. George manages to evoke the horrors of mass slaughter without showing a great deal of violence on-screen. Rather, streets strewn with bodies, encroaching mobs bearing bloody machetes, and carefully used video footage showing several people being hacked to death from a distance is more than enough to convey the enormity of the slaughter. George is depicting a world gone mad, with Paul attempting to create an epicenter of humanity to counteract everything that is falling apart around him. Thus, the film fits easily into the Hollywood mold, in which trauma is dealt with best by a resourceful, individual hero.
It's hard to fault George and coscreenwriter Keir Pearson for their approach, because it makes the film accessible to a broad audience. In an era of short-term historical memory, films like this are needed to remind us of just how wrong things can go. At the same time, though, there are parts of Hotel Rwanda that feel cheap and contrived, using the historical memory of genocide to create too-easy suspense, such as the scene that attempts to trick us into thinking that Paul's family has leapt to their death to avoid the Hutu machetes. In comparison to truly great historical docudramas like The Battle of Algiers (1966), Hotel Rwanda is certainly found lacking, but at least George found heroism in a Rwandan, rather than trying to force a white face into the mold.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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