Films about politics, war, or disaster rarely get it right. In order to impose a narrative structure on events that may stem from situations created decades or centuries earlier and to provide characters with whom an audience can identify, simplification and falsification are usually the first step (and essential misstep) in the process, cheapening and diminishing the very real horror of atrocity. Occasionally, though, a filmmaker beats the odds, collapsing only those unessential characters or situations that can conscionably be condensed; capturing the horror and complexity that are essential to the telling of the tale. It is from this minor tradition that Hotel Rwanda issues.
The turbulent history of modern Rwanda is defined largely by the struggle between two native groups, the Tutsis and the Hutus. The Tutsis, lighter-skinned, taller, and “more elegant,” were the favored group during Belgian rule. (The groups live side-by-side, speak the same language, and observe the same traditions; the distinctions were in large part created by the Belgians, who issued identity cards designating individuals as members of one group or the other, based on such criteria as the width of their nostrils, which they measured carefully.) When the Belgians granted Rwanda independence in 1962, a revolution by the more populous Hutus drove thousands of Tutsis into surrounding countries; more left during the Tutsi massacres of the following years. In October, 1990, Tutsi guerillas calling themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded from Uganda, intending to overthrow President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, and secure their right to return to their homeland. Over the next year, thousands of innocent Tutsis, many of them falsely accused of being RPF collaborators, were massacred, and the Rwandan army helped create and train the Hutu-dominated Interahamwe militia. In August 1993, President Habyarimana signed the power-sharing Arusha Accord with the RPF, which would have effectively ended his 20-year, one-party rule. The United Nations deployed 2,500 troops to help implement the treaty, but the president, unsurprisingly, was slow to follow through on the agreement. The popular radio station, Radio Television Libre de Mille Collines (RTLM), called for Hutus to rise up and kill the Tutsis (whom they called “cockroaches”), who were seen as traitorous for their collaboration with the Belgians and their opposition to the government that oppressed and murdered them. On April 6, 1994, a plane crash killed President Habyarimana, along with President Cyprien Ntarymira of Burundi. The crash is believed to have been arranged by Hutu extremists to prevent further implementation of the peace accord. That night the presidential guard began a campaign of retribution, murdering high-profile Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Soon, the Interahamwe, encouraged by RTLM and the presidential guard, joined in, indiscriminately killing any Tutsi or Tutsi-sympathetic Hutu they could get their hands on, an average of 5,000 people each day. With orders to act only as “peacekeepers,” the U.N. troops were impotent, forbidden to fire even if fired upon. As the killing intensified, the U.N. and almost all westerners deserted Rwanda. When the genocide ended 100 days later, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, about one-tenth of the country’s population, had been killed.
This is the complex and horrific stage on which Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda plays out. The film begins the day before the president’s plane goes down, capturing the last moment in which it was possible for a Rwandan to be happily apolitical. Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), a Hutu, is assistant manager of the Hotel Mille Collines. He’s a thoroughly westernized capitalist, a shrewd operator highly skilled at making an impression, enjoying his connections with important Americans and Europeans and high officials in the Rwandan army. Paul takes pride in his accomplishments and busies himself with the maintenance of his comfortable life; challenged to take a position on the growing tensions in his country, he responds, “I have no time for rallies and politics.” His wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is a Tutsi, as are many of their friends and neighbors; the distinction between the two groups is a non-issue for him. In Paul’s westernized mind, wealth and social prominence are much more significant issues; his family’s American-style suburban ranch house is separated from their poorer neighbors by a high wooden fence.
Paul ignores signs of the coming conflict, such as a crateful of machetes that falls open while he’s visiting the warehouse of the hotel’s food and alcohol supplier or his innocent Tutsi neighbor who is beaten and arrested in the middle of the night. At the outset, Paul seems exaggeratedly naïve; his insistence on seeing everything purely in business terms strains credulity, as when his wife’s sister Fedens and her husband Thomas (both Tutsis) come to see him. Told that Thomas’ assistant has warned him to leave the country, Paul insists that the man is only after Thomas’ job. He’s convinced that the U.N. presence and world media attention will keep the Rwandans safe. Soon though, the massacres are at his doorstep, and he must use his skills in negotiation and flattery to keep his family and his neighbors alive, turning the Hotel Mille Collines from “an oasis of calm” for visiting Westerners into a haven for Tutsi refugees.
Hotel Rwanda starts off from a familiar formula (political innocent sees the light and takes heroic action) and then transcends that formula so much that you forget it. A major reason is Don Cheadle’s performance. Cheadle has been doing great, often hilariously comic, work in supporting roles for years; Hotel Rwanda is his first lead role, but it likely won’t be his last. Given the challenge of being in almost every scene and serving as the audience’s surrogate, helping us to understand the situation and measure our response, Cheadle never falters. He dexterously slips from pathos to terror to comedy without self-consciousness or actorish mannerisms, and keeping his complex accent entirely consistent. As familiar as his face is, after a while you forget it’s Cheadle’s; you’re convinced you’re watching Paul Rusesabagina. As Paul gradually realizes that he’s being deserted by the white men whose approval satisfies his vanity, Cheadle peels back the layers of his self-satisfaction to find his bravery and gifts for manipulation. He turns the skills he learned from his employers and his powerful connections against them, persuading them to intervene when the situation is at its most hopeless.
Cheadle is assisted by a resourceful supporting cast. Fana Mokoena brings shadings to the role of corrupt General Bizimungo, a greedy opportunist who is made sympathetic by his naïve hopes that he will come out the other side of the atrocities with his graft, power, and privileges intact. Nick Nolte is Colonel Oliver, a Canadian leader of the U.N. peacekeeping force. Nolte plays the part close to the vest, with the reserve of a career military man, until he’s informed that most of the U.N. forces will be withdrawn, leaving only 3,000 troops in all of Rwanda. Paul pours him a drink, and the Colonel delivers a brief monologue that’s a small masterpiece of revulsion at oneself and one’s own people. As an American cameraman shooting news footage of the massacres, Joaquin Phoenix is decent and well-intentioned, but he holds no illusions about the likelihood of Western intervention. His compassion is offset by his partner, David O’Hara’s mercenary, indifferent newsman, who’s concerned solely with the sensational footage they’re sending back. Cara Seymour is no-nonsense and unsanctimonious as Pat Archer, a Red Cross worker who persuades Paul to hide a group of Tutsi orphan children so they won’t be slaughtered.
As Tatiana, Sophie Okonedo creates a believable portrait of a woman who’s both a devoted wife and mother and a strong, self-reliant person who insists her husband treat her as an equal. The relationship between Paul and Tatiana is explored in a number of small romantic scenes throughout the story, adding dramatic weight to the characters and reinforcing our empathy with them. Both are capable of great self-sacrifice, but they’re not excessively ennobled; they’re treated as ordinary people discovering their own strength and resources in a horrible situation.
Writer/director Terry George has deliberately set out to make a film that’s not just a social studies lesson but a genuine entertainment. His direction doesn’t draw attention to itself through flashy technique; it serves the story by getting out of its way as much as possible. He doesn’t try to capture the full atrocity of Rwandan genocide, instead focusing in on the microcosm of Paul Rusesabagina and the refugees of the Hotel Mille Collines so that the story is scaled down to a level that’s manageable dramatically. He downplays the elements of gore and terror (though there is an early sequence, in which Paul is driving home from the hotel through a nightmarish world of burning homes and roadside beatings, that is chillingly effective horror-movie stuff) in favor of creating an overall tone of anxiety and fear. Elements of the film are a little too clearly programmed; when we see a tourist leave the hotel cradling a puppy, we know he’s saying that you’re better off as a Westerner’s puppy than a black African, but he shows us these details with enough nuance and persuasiveness that we forgive it.
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where as a young man he was imprisoned twice under suspicion of IRA involvement, George understands the ways that neighbors can become murderous enemies. He and co-writer Keir Pearson (who had written an early draft before George became involved with the project) constructed their script by sitting down with the real Paul Rusesabagina and listening to his story, structuring it around the telling true-life incidents, as George had also done with Gerry Conlon in writing his script for In the Name of the Father. The producer, Alex Ho, raised the money for the film independently, through South African, British, and Italian sources, allowing George to make the film he intended, including casting Cheadle rather than a bigger-name star.
Though the film clearly indicts the West for ignoring the situation in Rwanda, those responsible for the international inaction are implicated in subtle ways, such as showing hotel staff gathered around a radio that’s broadcasting President Clinton promising to see that “our people” get home safely or that later has Christin Shelley, from the U.S. State Department, tying herself in knots to avoid saying the word “genocide.” The film’s goal is not to point fingers at any individual or group; it was the whole of the Western world that turned its back on Rwanda, and, with 800,000 dead men, women, and children, there’s more than enough blame to go around.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Hotel Rwanda / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()