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January 9, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

In many ways, Hotel Rwanda (IMDB) is a difficult film to review. Terry George's powerful film asks its viewers to confront the Rwanda genocide in 1994 when the Hutu militia slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis over the course of just 100 days. More importantly, the film reminds its viewers that the West essentially turned a blind eye towards these atrocities. During one crucial scene, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) listens to a radio broadcast as a US State Department official insists on defining what's happenening as "acts of genocide" rather than "genocide," as if such a distinction justifies inaction. This critique of inaction by Western powers is also embodied in two relatively minor characters, a photojournalist played by Joaquin Phoenix and a Canadian UN Colonel (Nick Nolte), both of whom know that the media images of the brutality will not shake European and American audiences from their complacency or shame them into action. This abandonment is best illustrated in ascene in which Paul calls the Belgian hotel owner (Jean Reno), who sits comfortably in his brightly lit, calm office, while Paul, on the other end of the line, begs him for help. In that regard, the film seems to offer what amounts to a mild self-critique, acknowledging that audiences may be deeply moved by a film like Hotel Rwanda, but will likely do little to change the causes that might have contributed to genocide.

Hotel Rwanda focuses on the story of Paul, a Hutu hotel manager at the Mille Collines, a Belgian-owned luxury hotel. We also learn early in the film that his wife and her family is Tutsi. In the film's early scenes, Paul is shown as a stylish, competent hotel manager, someone who knows that the gift of a good cigar or the best whiskey will curry more favor than a monetary bribe. He's always impeccably dressed and manages to work between all of Rwanda's conflicted communities. When the genocide begins suddenly, in response to a code phrase repeated on the radio by a jingoistic radio broadcaster, Paul's diplomatic skills--and his storehouse of bribes--allow him to work a minor miracle, housing over 1,000 Tutsi people in the hotel for the duration of the genocide. Paul's actions prompted many reviewers to read Paul as an African Oskar Schindler, a description that seems, as Cynthia Fuchs notes, "partly right," but Hotel Rwanda, in my reading, is far less sentimental than Spielberg's film, using Paul's story to criticize Western inaction rather than to celebrate the triumph of the individual over great odds.

The film's approach to the Rwanda genocide is not without controversy: George chooses to show the brutality only at a distance, and instead we often see only the effects of the brutality, as in one crucial scene in which Paul leaves his hotel compound for supplies. But I'm not sure it would be possible to convey the sheer brutality of what happened in a feature film. Any attempt to show the violence would fall short. Others have criticized the film for its "happy ending," the film's reliance on the codes of a Hollywood thriller. Cynthia Fuchs notes that the technique of focusing on a single character's story "makes the story comprehensible and tragic, but also barely references the broad structures that create such atrocity." But in many scenes, these techniques amplify the horror, particularly in a sequence early in the film when Paul instructs his wife to throw herself and their children from the roof of the hotel rather than face death by machete.

There's no question that Hotel Rwanda is an important film, one of the first to call attention to the humanitarian crises in Africa (many discussions of the film have made reference to the genocide in Sudan). While the decision to focus on a single character, a survivor like Paul Rusesabagina, may make the story more palatable to western viewers, the film clearly illustrates how the Tutsis were abandoned by the West.

Posted by chuck at January 9, 2005 11:50 AM

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Awesome analysis of how western movie viewers would respond to further detail and disclosure of the violence that took place during the Rwandan genocide. I like that you point out that "any attempt to show the violence would fall short." The way you look at how the director chose to use violence, as well as his focus on Paul to make this film more acceptable is very insightful. Perhaps the director’s choice will enable his movie to be more widely viewed and the need for help that so many African countries have to be more fully recognized. The only problem, sadly, may end up being complacency.

Posted by: Sterling at March 3, 2005 8:31 AM

Thanks for the compliments, Sterling. Just so you know, comments on oler entries are moderated by me, so that's why it took a while to show up on the blog. I think you're right that the response to the film may be one of "complacency," especially given the narrative resolution of the problems in the film. Some of the people involved in the film, especially Don Cheadle, have become activists regardin African issues since the making of the film.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 3, 2005 9:16 AM

this movie made me cry because i just couldnt beleave that people can do that and not care about who their hurting. this is a verry trajic thing its kinda like the holucost. this has really opened my eyes to the things some people are will do for reveng.i hope every one in the world could see this. its a real good mo

Posted by: deniss at March 28, 2007 3:44 PM

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