In 1994, nearly one million Tutsis were slaughtered in Rwanda in 100 days by the ruling Hutus. Hotel Rwanda takes this almost incomprehensible tragedy and personalizes it through one man’s story.
While the rest of the world did nothing, Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), a middle-class family man and hotel manager of the Belgian-owned Hotel des Mille Collines, saved 1,268 Tutsis and Hutu moderates from the Interahamwe, the Hutu death squads.
The film, directed by Terry George (the screenwriter of In the Name of the Father), forgoes gorgeous cinematography and masterful artistry. By giving the film a docu-drama look, George makes the story more immediate and real rather than distancing the audience with rarefied images.
While keeping the film grounded in reality, the director also chooses not to overwhelm people with the slaughter that took place.
The film doesn’t shy away from the brutality of what occurred; we are shown dead bodies strewn along the roadside and people being brutally beaten, but George keeps the blood to a relative minimum. By doing so, he shows the horror without giving you an excuse to avert your eyes.
The film also refuses to elevate Paul to larger-than-life status. He is a man of style who, because of horrific circumstances, becomes a man of amazing substance. Skilled at dealing with the rich and powerful, he is a master of the bribe and flattery, stroking his guests’ egos and incurring their favor.
As chaos ensues, he is a man who repeatedly chooses to help rather than run. Although his actions take great courage, the film doesn’t let its audience off the hook so easily and instead makes clear that his is a level of courage we all should emulate.
Sophie Okonedo delivers a standout performance as Tatiana. She and Cheadle both keep these characters determinedly human. The quiet scenes between husband and wife worrying about their children and each other help add to the sense that this couple could be any couple, even as the constant gunfire continues in the background.
What does it mean to watch a movie about a genocide that occurred while other nations stood by and watched? In a moment that admonishes us all, Jack, a photojournalist played by Joaquin Phoenix, accurately predicts that when people see his footage of Tutsis being beaten to death, “They’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and they’ll go on eating their dinners.”
Considering how little most people know about Rwanda, this film works as a consciousness-raiser as well; the creators seem to hope that by showing us what happened we will truly “never forget” this time.
Because the film pulls so few punches, its oddly upbeat ending is particularly disappointing. However, the blundered ending should not keep people from the theaters, nor should the film’s difficult topic.
When I tried to recruit friends to see Hotel Rwanda with me, they all said that it looked like “too much of a downer.” Well, yes, genocide is a bit of a “downer,” and it’s true that I can’t remember the last time I heard so many people cry.
The film is both forcefully written and acted, and should be seen on these merits, and the fact that it is an important, true story. We looked away from the real events; will we look away from the movie too?