Friday, April 15, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda
Directed by Terry George
2004, rated PG-13
5 stars

It is important that we be reminded of the darker side of human nature. Documentaries, dramas, and action films have been made on subjects such as the prosecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, the creation of the atomic bomb and the consequences of its deployment on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam, World War I, and any other atrocity in which mass murder has occurred. These films are essential to our understanding of the world, and are made in the hopes that our manner of dealing with similar situations will improve as they arise in present times. One such atrocity imperative to global understanding occurred only ten years ago, and was allowed to continue without any intervention by the world powers. Hotel Rwanda, directed and written by Terry George, tells the story of one man’s heroic efforts during the time of the horrific genocide that occurred in Rwanda in the 1990’s.

Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a Belgian-owned hotel, Mille Collines, in the small African country of Rwanda, and whose remarkable story is told by the film. The film begins only a few days before the slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus. These two groups are barely distinguishable from each other; they share the same ethnic background, the same neighborhoods, the same religions, and the same general political beliefs. All that separates them from one another are their individual ID cards labeling them as either Hutu or Tutsi. These two groups, and the subsequent rift between them, were created by first the German and then the Belgian colonialists who controlled the country in the 1960’s. These European colonialists felt that it was necessary to have a governing body of an elite class, and declared the Tutsi minority to be the more elegant—and thus more favored. These Europeans then separated the people into these two groups using arbitrary guidelines such as the width of noses, height, and skin pigmentation. Although the differences were so minor that the two groups were virtually indistinguishable from one another, the Europeans favored the Tutsis for being taller, and lighter skinned. When these colonialist forces left the country, however, they left an angry Hutu majority in charge. Under an extremist Hutu government, many Tutsis were driven from Rwanda, and those that remained became demonized. As a Tutsi rebel army began to fight its way back into the country, a powerful Hutu radio broadcast went out calling for the eradication of all the Tutsi “cockroaches.” The Hutus erupted, killing nearly a million people, many of them innocent women and children, before the Tutsi rebel forces were able to fight back and halt the genocide. These events were covered on the news by European journalists, and reported to Western-power government officials by the United Nations officers stationed in the country—yet the world just stood by and let it happen, and no intervention force came to these people’s rescue.

As horrific and distressing as this story may seem, Hotel Rwanda carries more a message of hope than of disaster. Over the course of the genocide, Paul Rusesabagina sheltered more than 1,200 Hutu and Tutsi refugees in the Hotel de Mille Collines. It is his story of bravery and humanity that Hotel Rwanda celebrates. When the genocide first began, Paul’s original intention was to protect his family. Though himself a Hutu, his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) is Tutsi, and thus she, their three children, and her extended family are all in danger. As more and more refugees flock to the UN-protected grounds of the hotel, however, Paul begins to recognize the importance of protecting and saving all of them from the horrific murders taking place just outside the gates. Through the evacuation of all European personnel and complete abandonment of the Rwandans in their plight, and the bargains and bribes required to keep the Hutu militia at bay, Paul’s heroic efforts in the face of so much danger reminds us of the goodness that can be present in human nature.

Hotel Rwanda is absolutely superb. It encompasses every aspect a quality film should—a compelling plotline, excellent acting, quality filmmaking, and a well-told story. Every character in the film is absolutely convincing, and powerful in his and her sincerity. Don Cheadle, especially, gives a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming performance as Paul, though the surrounding characters also contribute to the genuine feel of the film. Nick Nolte, as the UN Colonel Oliver, Cara Seymour as the Red Cross humanitarian worker Pat Archer, and Joaquin Phoenix as the journalist Jack Daglish each give magnificent supporting performances as the minor European—otherwise known as white—roles. Cheadle and Okonedo really carry the film, however, helped by the excellent performances given by Desmond Dube as Paul’s friend and hotel co-worker Dube, Tony Kgoroge as the Hutu-loyal hotel worker and general scum-bucket Gregoire, Hakeem Kae-Kazim as the Hutu supplier of weapons and supplies George Rutaganda, and Fana Mokoena as the Rwandan police official General Bizimungu. Every actor seems to be reaching through the screen and transcending the boundaries between film and reality, giving a powerful sense of how desperate the situation really was, and what actually happened. Though the story is tense, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats the entire time, it does make room for the interspersion of small comedy—which when it comes, brings a sudden relief from the anxiety and tension of the film.

Though genocide is not exactly a light or pleasant subject to be confronted with, Hotel Rwanda carries an important message of what happens when such carnage occurs while the world stands by and watches on the evening news. It also does an outstanding job of juxtaposing the worst side of humanity with the best and most heroic. The audience comes away not with a depressed feeling of despair, but with an uplifting sense of hope for humanity. Although not as widely publicized and well-known as other more famous cases of mass murder and genocide, Hotel Rwanda is just as important as films like Schindler’s List. When confronted with the bravery and heroics of one average man, it is encouraging to think that there is hope, even in the darkest of times.