Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Ambitiously humanitarian, the film uses Paul's plot to allude to the broader tragedy.

Hotel Rwanda

Director: Terry George
Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Cara Seymour
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: United Artists
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2005-04-12

"I don't want this to be a commentary about how I moved the camera and what actor was particularly good," says Terry George right off. "They were all great. I'd rather that Paul [Rusesabagina] do most of the speaking, and just tell us the reality of what went on." Their joint commentary (with closing credits observations by Wyclef Jean, over his "Million Voices," with the Rwandan choir) underlines this sense of urgency, that voices be heard and stories comprehended.

Hotel Rwanda tells Rusesabagina's story, his efforts during 1994's Rwandan genocide to save 1268 people (the Hutus ended up killing some 800,000 Tutsis in 100 days, many by machete or bludgeoning). Played in the film by Oscar-nominated Don Cheadle, Rusesebagina is a reluctant hero, believing at first that he and his family (he is Hutu, his wife Tatiana [Oscar-nominated Sophie Okonedo] will survive if he only persists in the pleasantly obsequious behavior that has made him successful in the hotel business. Manager of the Mille Collines, a Belgian-owned luxury hotel, he prides himself on his crisp white shirts and shined shoes, shuttling between the swank and seedy sides of Kigali, Rwanda. His employers are distant, his clients privileged, and neither can imagine how he must wheel and deal each day to maintain their sense of comfort.

The film opens as Paul is doing his best to ignore the coming onslaught, traveling to the black market warehouse run by George (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), where he regularly purchases beer, lobster, and soda pop "for the children." As he soothes his anxious driver, the quietly loyal Dube (Desmond Dube), Paul is also becoming aware of the rising tide; radio reports are urging the Hutus to exterminate the "Tutsi cockroaches." For Paul, the conflict is both old news (existing since before the Belgians occupied, divided, and finally abandoned Rwanda in 1962) and increasingly urgent. Though he's just seen a crate full of machetes break open at the warehouse where he's picked up the week's supplies, Paul refuses to believe violence will erupt. "Time is money," he insists, and rushes back to work.

This faith in his own work ethic keeps Paul from acknowledging the turmoil erupting all around him. But, as Rusesebagina recalls, the violence escalated overnight, as his neighbors were slaughtered (he and his family heard them yelling and being killed). On 6 April 2004, Rwandan President Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira's plane is shot down (by a French made missile, George points out) while attempting to land at Kigali Airport. And on 7 April, Paul wakes to chaos: neighbors and friends begin coming to his home, believing he will be able to save them from the militia now rampaging through the community.

Paul brings Tatiana, their three children, and a van full of neighbors to the hotel, where they will remain for most of the film's running time, hoping for help. The DVD includes two featurettes in which participants remember the ordeal, "A Message for Peace: The Making of Hotel Rwanda" (focused on the events and motives for making the film more than the production per se) and "Return to Rwanda" (which follows Rusesebagina, family members, and friends, to memorials and sites portrayed in the film, including the Mille Collines). Ambitiously humanitarian, the film uses Paul's plot to allude to the broader tragedy. As George says repeatedly in his commentary, he decided not to show much gore, in order that the film be available to a PG-13 audience, but also because he felt he couldn't do justice to the devastation.

This strategy is often effective, as when Paul and hotel employee Gregoire (Tony Kgoroge) drive one foggy night over a road filled with corpses, their tires crunching bones and squashing flesh before they even realize what they've done. Though these images remain both too vast and too abstract to comprehend fully, the next scene details the harrowing effects: back at the hotel, Paul begins to change his shirt, but is so undone by what he's just scene that he collapses, ripping off his blood-stained shirt in a very private agony.

By making the historical tragedy into personal drama, Hotel Rwanda risks melodrama, that is, seeming trivial or preachy. But even in such moments, the film maintains a certain dignity, in part because it hews so closely to Rusesebagina's experience. He doesn't see himself as a hero, but a skilled negotiator, a hotelier just trying to get by, moved to action by a dire imperative.

He has some help, particularly the Canadian-born Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), an increasingly frustrated United Nations peace keeper, which means, in his words, that he is unable to "make" peace, only stand by and watch as the Hutu thugs roar through the city in jeeps, wearing colorful wigs and waving their bloody weapons. Colonel Oliver and his men roll through the film occasionally, each time long enough to show the U.N.'s (and by extension, the world's most powerful nations) refusal to take responsibility or any action against the carnage. George briefly sympathizes with the U.N. troops' sense of impotence ("I can't imagine what was going through the soldiers' heads when they were doing this," that is, sorting out whites to be saved and blacks to be left behind). And, he points out, the situation is an effect of the U.S.'s recent debacle in Somalia, now not wanting to risk another failed intervention in Africa. The similarities to other situations -- including Mogadishu and Darfur -- are plain, as tv and radio report official quibbling over use of the word "genocide" to describe what's happening. Oliver bluntly informs Paul (who appears stunned to hear it), the Rwandan crisis is not on any Western radar screen, because those involved are "not even nigger[s]," but merely Africans.

The film offers some variety of sketched out characters, including whites who articulate a raced sense of shame, namely the Belgian hotel owner (Jean Reno), whom Paul calls for help; steadfast Red Cross worker Pat Archer (Cara Seymour); and a couple of journalists, Jack (Joaquin Phoenix) and David (David O'Hara). Hardened carousers and war-coverage veterans, the reporters attempt to deliver images to U.S. and European tv screens, even knowing they will have little effect. As Jack puts it, "If people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's horrible,' and then go on eating their dinners." George notes that this is the film's most remembered line, and laments that its indictment remains so true.

Even as it concentrates on Paul's personal experience, the movie makes plain the context, that the Civil War results from decades of poverty, "humanitarian crisis," rage, and exploitation by Western powers. And it proposes that other paths are possible. Indeed, the DVD opens with a message from Cheadle, urging, "Now, it's up to you." In particular, he's referring to what you might do with regard to this year's genocide, in Sudan, either by donating money to Amnesty International (prepaid envelope provided in the DVD) or expressing your concerns to U.S. officials. For all its emotional roller-coastering, Hotel Rwanda demonstrates that movies can assert political commitment, and insist that viewers make real choices.

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