February 21, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

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Director Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda is a powerful and inspired portrayal of the bloody, hundred day, ethnic genocide of Tutsis by the Hutus in 1994. It conveys the brutality and, even more frightening, the joy with which the Hutus attempted to cleanse Rwanda of the “Tutsi cockroaches.” The film, written by Keir Pearson and Terry George in conjunction with Paul Rusesabagina, follows the Rusesabagina family as they and the 1,268 people that Paul sheltered in the hotel struggle to survive amidst the warfare. Jockeying for time and bribing the police with scotch and cigars in exchange for lives, they manage to hold out in the Hotel des Milles Collines until the UN is able to ferry them across the line of fire.

The film opens with an eerie call to duty by the RTLM Hutu Power Radio, insisting that the Tutsi cockroaches must be “squashed.” We then meet Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a four star hotel who is doing business with a leader of the Hutu power movement. Paul is a soft-spoken businessman who politely refuses to get involved in the movement despite is Hutu status. He does everything he can to please those around him, and forms friendships with powerful people based on favors and access to luxury items like whiskey and cigars. At the beginning of the film he is full of a false sense of security based on these connections. This does not last long. His inability to accept the terrifying intentions of the Hutu power movement is quickly overcome as the killing abruptly begins.

The film works hard to let the audience know that the U.N. and the leaders of other countries did very little if anything to help stop the genocide. Early on, Paul’s “friends” abandon him to escape the country, or turn their heads when he calls pleading for aid. Throughout the film, sound bites of American radio come through, saying that America is concerned with Sarajevo, conspicuously leaving out Rwanda. Another sound bite tells that they will not refer to the ethnic conflict as genocide. but only as acts of genocide, providing poor excuses for allowing the killing to continue. Frustrated U.N. workers bemoan their lack of support and their inability to do more because of orders higher up. In the end you are left both with a feeling of helplessness at how little can be done with out international support, and a feeling of awe at how much can be done by so few people.

The imagery in the film does an excellent job of conveying a feeling of horror, disgust and disbelief with out using the shockvalue of pure gore. Its power lies in the imagery and the characters’ misguided expectancy that help is on the way. Although the killing is seen at a distance, the images portray the hatred and the evil as well as the joy with which the Hutu’s killed a million people. Terry tastefully uses other means to create the same sense of dread. At one point, Paul is in a car and finds that he is on a road covered with dead bodies that he is driving over. From inside the car, it looks like they have simply driven off the road until Paul gets out to discover, through a thick fog, the corpses scattered across the road and the field around them. The images are strong but not overtly gory. This works to insist more on the lack of attention from the world and less on the savagery of the Hutus. The film’s message becomes much broader and much more accusatory by allowing the shame to fall on the international community rather than the power drunk and ecstatic Hutu murderers.

In addition to the imagery and direction, the actors in the film succeeded wonderfully in creating a sense of modesty and urgency, doing what was needed to survive. They do not make themselves out to be heroes. Rather, they honor their obligations and connections with each other, adding a very human touch to this bloody point in history. Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina impressively portrays a man who does not set out to help over a thousand people but who ends up saving the lives of 1,268 through quick thinking and immense generosity and dedication.

This film is well worth seeing. It is the perfect combination of a small story of human survival in the context of a mass tragedy that was widely ignored when it took place. You will be inspired by the story and learn about the ethnic conflict in Rwanda that is being publicized and acknowledged a little too late. It is a movie that will grab you and pull you in, despite its sentimental moments. It is impossible to watch the film with out feeling afraid for these people’s lives and horrified both at the inaction of the world and at the joy with which one person can so carelessly kill another.

Archived article by Becky Wolozin
Sun Staff Writer