WHEN THE WORLD CLOSED ITS EYES, HE OPENED HIS ARMS.
Sometimes a film receives accolade just for addressing a difficult topic that is rarely talked about. There were critics who thought Hotel Rwanda was a fairly simplistic film, hardly profound enough to earn rave reviews. In fact, that was my opinion on an earlier film by writer-director Terry George called Some Mother’s Son (1996), an earnest, well-made enough drama about the IRA but nowhere near as involving as certain other films on the subject, like In the Name of the Father (also co-written by George).
But Hotel Rwanda does deserve praise for its humble and direct approach. No fancy visuals here, but the director has a very firm grip on a story he obviously feels passionate about.
Viewing a genocide through the eyes of a hotel owner
The genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994, when members of the Hutu tribe slaughtered over 800,000 members of the Tutsi tribe in just a few months, has become a heavy burden on the conscience of the Western world. Nobody did much to stop it. No one can say that we didn’t know what was going on – we knew and we didn’t care enough to stop the bloodbath in time. And we are not talking about a holocaust that took place 60 years ago. This atrocity is only a decade away. The writers choose to see the genocide through the eyes of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), a member of the Hutu tribe who has married a Tutsi and now helps run a Belgian-owned, four-star hotel. He’s very good at his job and doesn’t care for politics; he has no reason to hate the Tutsi for helping the former Belgian colonizers.
There are warning signs of what is about to happen but Paul doesn’t take them seriously. A radio station keeps spewing hateful propaganda, calling the Tutsi “cockroaches”, but he doesn’t realize its impact. When the genocide suddenly begins, Paul uses every contact he has to help as many Tutsi (and those Hutu who refuse to take part in the atrocities) as possible. The luxurious hotel becomes a glorified refugee camp.
A symbol of what is wrong with the United Nations
One of the prominent characters in the story is fictional. Colonel Oliver, a Canadian in charge of a United Nations peacekeeping force, was based on a real-life Canadian officer who witnessed the awful events in Rwanda. This officer becomes the very symbol of what is wrong with the United Nations as an organization; he stands on the sidelines, expresses a wish to stop the killing but is unable to do so. Nick Nolte plays him in a way that clearly shows how weak his position is. He’s much bigger than Cheadle, but there’s never any doubt as to which character is the stronger. Don Cheadle is terrific as the quiet, soft-spoken hero who uses everything he has ever learned from his job in order to save lives; this will stand as one of his greatest performances.
There’s a sequence in the film that expresses in a not too subtle but still powerful way the feeling the filmmakers want us Western viewers to experience. Transportation has been arranged to evacuate the White residents at the hotel but the Rwandan refugees are not allowed to leave. As Joaquin Phoenix’s photographer walks to the bus in the pouring rain, a Black hotel employee puts up an umbrella over his head and the photographer is so visibly embarrassed he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
But the film’s core message is not really that we should all be ashamed of ourselves. The most important thing to learn is that it is always possible to reach out and help. There is always room for one more. You could simply call it “Hollywood schmaltz”, but I’m not cold-hearted and cynical enough to do that.
Hotel Rwanda 2004-Britain-Italy-South Africa. 123 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by A. Kitman Ho, Terry George. Directed by Terry George. Screenplay: Keir Pearson, Terry George. Cast: Don Cheadle (Paul Rusesabagina), Sophie Okonedo (Tatiana Rusesabagina), Joaquin Phoenix (Jack Daglish), Nick Nolte, Desmond Dube, David O’Hara. Cameo: Jean Reno.
Last word: “I was interested in all the African wars and conflicts, but these are subjects Hollywood avoided when I was working on them. Then I received Paul’s story. I felt it said it all about conflicts, racism, etc, while being film material. For even if you do not consider the genocide raging outside the Mille Collines Hotel, there is still a thriller going on, and a beautiful romance. When I met Paul and his wife Tatiana, I saw how they supported each other as a team. This became the core of the movie, for even if you deal with a crucial political topic, it is also important to make something entertaining. This is how you manage to touch people and make them aware of such a serious issue as a genocide.” (George, Cineuropa)