The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was one of the most horriffic events of the 20th century, resulting in the deaths of one million people in just three months. Yet few Westerners showed much concern at the time, and even fewer today are disturbed that the same events are just a trigger away from occurring again. Why don’t we care? Why doesn’t our media tell us what’s going on? Why do we have movie after movie about World War II and none about the current state of Africa?
Director Terry George believes it’s “sub-conscious racism, that [we believe] African life is not on a par, is not worth as much as Western life, that somehow we still have the prejudice that these people are just emerging from savagery. They slaughter each other, and it’s not worth our intervention.” George rose to prominence when he wrote the script for In the Name of the Father, and he’s returned with another film based on a historic event. Hotel Rwanda is the extraordinary story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan hotel manager who was able to save 1,268 people during the spring and summer of 1994.
The genocide began in March 1994. The Hutus and the Tutsis—the two primary ethnic groups in Rwanda—had been at odds since the German and later Belgian colonizers set the two against each other in order to rule more efficiently. The Tutsis were favored under the colonists, but the Hutus rose to power after 1959. The strife continued for decades, with Tutsis fleeing to neighboring countries and eventually forming a rebel army in 1990. The conflict reached its tipping point when a Hutu general and the president of Burundi were assassinated, an event Hutu extremists used as a pretext to begin a horrific campaign of slaughter.
While the film attempts to document the genocide, it does so by focusing on the character of Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), who gave refuge to hundreds of fleeing Tutsis. Calling in dozens of favors with his extensive network of contacts, he was able to hold the Hutu extremists (the Interahamwe militia) at bay, until the Tutsi rebels drove the Hutu from power. Cheadle, who’s created an impressive body of work in the last couple years, portrays Rusesabagina as an efficient manager who cares deeply about his family and the people in he looks after. He’s able to move in all sorts of crowds, from peasants to generals and UN commanders, and this ability is foundational to his success. “I never thought I was doing something different,” Rusesabagina modestly declares from the incongruous setting of the Four Seasons in Chicago. “I thought I was just acting as a normal hotel manager.”
George and his co-producer Alex Ho spent two years putting the financing for Hotel Rwanda together. A critical point occurred in February 2003 when George and Rusesabagina traveled back to Rwanda and visited many of the people the hotel manager saved. They also visited a memorial site where 40,000 Tutsis had been killed. Some of those bodies are now on display at the memorial, where the lime that covered them had a mummifying effect. “It’s really disturbing since this is the closest you can get to the genocide,” says George, “and they’re actually frozen in their deaths. The most bizarre thing is that in death the skin has turned white from the lime. So the very color that would’ve saved their lives during the genocide, they’ve now become in death. That trip turned the project from a passion to an obligation.”
George, who co-wrote the picture with Keir Pearson, also felt an obligation to be accurate as possible. “In lieu of the attention that we give to history, some films become the medium of record. Certainly The Killing Fields is that for the Cambodian genocide. I hope this will be one of the key views of the Rwandan genocide and will allow generations in the future to move through it and see it. ... I tried to find every piece of documentary footage. I read every book I could get my hands on. Particularly with the footage, I tried to re-create those images. When the whites are leaving, with the nuns being pulled through the crowd, I lifted that directly from Belgian TV footage I’d seen. The ambush of a UN convoy is blow-for-blow how it was. It was important for me to get the visuals, because the movie is a time capsule.”
At the same time, George wanted to make a feature film, not a documentary. “In a funny way, there’s a level of voyeurism in documentaries no matter what happens. Film can take you inside the event itself. If documentary is the wine of reporting, then feature filmmaking is the brandy. You distill those things down to its essence and give the audience that charge. I don’t think any documentary on the Holocaust can have the power that Schindler’s List did. Because you’re in there, you’re moving with someone. That’s enlightening to people in a way that news reporting is not.”
Accordingly, the movie spends more time on the relationship of Paul and his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) than it does on the genocide itself. The film’s heavy use of close-ups is designed to draw you in emotionally, but it also has the effect of closing off the outside world, of making the tragedy somehow less tragic. Counteracting this is the near bombast of the film’s score. “Everyone else was complaining that I needed the music more to the fore,” George explains. “They’re more of the Bruckheimer school. It certainly raises the tension.” Unfortunately, it also manipulates the audience in a story that can stand on its own just fine.
Nonetheless, Hotel Rwanda is a gripping film that bears witness to both a historic tragedy and one man’s bravery. But for both Terry George and Paul Rusesabagina, the hope is that it won’t just be an artifact but will challenge audiences — particularly American ones — to take a greater interest in what’s happening in Africa right now. The U.S. government stood idly by in the spring of 1994, going so far as to deny any genocide was taking place. However, Rusesabagina says,“I don’t blame the average American, because he was not informed of what was going on. But I do hope this movie serves as a wake-up call to the international community. Once people see this movie, they should imagine what is happening in Sudan, what has been happening in the Congo, what has been happening in Burundi, and what could happen again in Rwanda.”