Extraordinary circumstances prompt an ordinary man to stand against genocide in the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’

December 3, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 3, 2015

Hotel Rwanda, the 2004 drama that Terry George directed and co-wrote with Keir Pearson, is a movie that is tempting to look away from. It concerns Rwanda’s genocidal 1994 civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, a conflict in which approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered — more than a tenth of the nation’s population at the time. (In preparing this blog post, I saw one estimate that put the casualties at more than 1 million dead.)

I purchased a copy of the DVD in 2012 after listening to an audio version of An Ordinary Mana memoir about the genocide, but not until last week did I watch the movie. It stars Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered about 1,200 refugees from the genocide at the luxury hotel he managed in the Rwanda capital of Kigali. The real-life Rusesabagina co-wrote a memoir with Tom Zellner that was published three years after Hotel Rwanda was released, although his story inspired the movie; he himself served as a consultant for the picture.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found Hotel Rwanda to be a thoroughly watchable movie, despite the relentlessly grim true-life circumstances that frame the story. The script focuses on Rusesabagina’s efforts to navigate the perils of the civil conflict that erupts suddenly the morning after Rwanda’s president dies when his plane is shot down. We see Rusesabagina — a Hutu hotel manager, husband and father whose wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is a Tutsi — negotiate with genocidal Interahamwe militia members, a laissez-faire Rwanda army general and various foreigners.

The latter group wield increasingly little influence on the bloody events that are decimating Rwanda, thanks largely to international apathy about what the world mostly views as a faraway slaughter involving inconsequential African peasants. One of the movie’s most poignant sequences come as foreign powers evacuate their citizens, a clear signal that they will do nothing to prevent further violence.

Hotel Rwanda occasionally comes off as preachy, mainly due to a few clunky-sounding speeches that George and Pearson put in the mouths of Nick Nolte, who plays a Canadian colonel leading a detachment of United Nations soldiers, and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a righteous journalist who trusts neither himself nor the West to do the right thing. Thankfully, the movie is more interested in showing Rusesabagina and his wife react to and try to survive the ethnic purge that is being conducted right outside the gates of the Hotel Mille Collines in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

Little actual violence is shown on screen, but there’s enough to convince viewers of the mortal peril its characters are facing. In one early scene, Rusesabagina and his family come across a child covered in blood; in another, the manager and an employee take an early-morning drive along a foggy riverside road, only to discover that the pavement literally is covered with corpses.

The movie also excels at showing how a society turns on itself. Militia raid private residences at night, and the neighbors watch in silence, convinced — rightly so, it would seem — that to attempt to intervene would be futile or worse. A Hutu-controlled radio station broadcasts screeds against cockroaches and traitors and urges crowds to rally in specific neighborhoods to hunt down various targets. A businessman imports cheap machetes — the very weapon that would soon be wielded by scores of murderous militia — and chuckles at the easy profits he’ll make selling them. Identity cards are stamped with their subjects’ ethnicity. (Hmm, why does this remind me of something in contemporary American politics?) And an outside world looks on indifferently, unwilling to act…

All of these scenes are powerful, but so too are the quiet moments with Paul and Tatiana Rusesabagina. In one moment, he urges her to make the children jump from the hotel roof rather than be hacked to death by machetes; in another, he reveals that he bribed the minister of health to transfer Tatiana to a post in Kigali so it easier for Paul to court her, and they joke about whether he gave the minister a new or used car. Later, after a militia incursion at the hotel is foiled, Paul frantically searches for his wife and children. When he finds Tatiana cowering in the bathroom behind a shower curtain, holding a detachable nozzle as if it were a weapon, he asks her what she intended to do with it. They dissolve into laughter tinged with tears.

Cheadle and Okonedo are excellent in their roles, although it takes a while before the latter performer has a chance to do much other than show anxiety and concern. The Rusesabagina of the movie very much resembles the person revealed by his memoir — an educated, fundamentally decent man who is adept at catering to the whims of Kigali’s power brokers and calling in his markers when he needs a favor.

The leads are surrounded by an excellent cast, especially Hakeem Kae-Kazim as Interahamwe leader Georges Rutaganda and Fana Mokoena as Gen. Augustin Bizimungu, both of whom imbue their characters with a certain depth and likeability that lesser films would have skipped. Nolte verges on caricature as the United Nations’ Col. Oliver, who was based on the real-life Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, but Cara Seymour gets off a more nuanced turn as humanitarian worker Pat Archer.

Although the ending of Hotel Rwanda slips into clichéd territory, supplying a conclusion that seems a bit too upbeat given all that’s transpired, the movie as a whole is excellent. Unfortunately, it remains far too relevant in today’s world as a cautionary tale about what happens when the hatred is invoked as cause to overlook the humanity of people who are deemed to be different.

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