Hotel Rwanda

How do you wrap your head around something like the Rwandan genocide in 1994? In three months a million people were killed. I remember hearing an interview on NPR with a Hutu woman who was serving time for her part in the massacre. Before it started, she was a normal suburban mother. She’d believed the lies about the Tutsis and was given an opportunity to act on them. It’s not very comforting to know that a soccer mom can be turned into a machete weilding butcher.

How do you make a movie about that? The tried and true method is to focus on one story, one character. This is how Speilberg gave us the Holocaust in Schindler’s List; he depicted the tragedy on a human scale. There are plenty of similarities between Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List. Like Oskar Schindler, Paul Ruseabagina, played by Don Cheadle is a morally ambiguous character. He runs a fancy hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Paul treats his guests well, sometimes bending the rules to do it. Important guests find bottles of good scotch in their luggage and suppliers are plied with Cuban cigars in exchange for special favors. A Hutu himself, he is able to sweet talk the generals and manipulate them into giving him what he wants.

When this questionable character is confronted with indescribable evil, something changes inside him, and he finds decency and courage where others, including the leaders of the western powers, lacked it. and like Schindler, he begins to save people.

In one night, the Rwandan government falls and control of the streets of the capital goes to the brutal and corrupt military and the savage militias, egged on by talk radio hosts. Paul reluctantly hides some Tutsi neighbors in his hotel. Word gets out and soon Tutsis are showing up at the gates wanting sanctuary. When the UN retreats to refugee camps in another part of the country, Paul and his charges are left on their own, protected only by his skill and ability to bribe the military. They couldn’t have asked for a better man for the job.

Don Cheadle as Paul is the heart and soul of Hotel Rwanda. He plays a smart worldly (within his own sphere, anyway) man, who has fully bought into the ways of the west. His eyes are opened as the west fails to come to his aid when he really needs it. The scene where he can’t bring himself to put on a tie is devastating. Sophie Okonedo deserves mention as his strong-willed wife.

Hotel Rwanda is a powerful film. It is not as artful as Schindler’s List, the filmmakers having gone for a more documentary style. Even so the violence and gore are toned down, the horror coming from the reactions of the survivors. It’s an effective choice.

So how do we deal with this horrific event? We remember that even within this ultimate evil, there was a ray of hope. His name was Paul Ruseabagina.


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February 2005
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