As you probably know by now, this film takes place in Rwanda in 1994 when Hutus massacred around 1,000,000 Tutsis. It tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the manager of the swank Hotel Des Milles Collines and a Hutu, who, at the risk of his life, turned the hotel into a shelter from the killers’ machetes for around 1,200 Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus.
The film shades in some background as we learn that during Belgium’s rule of Rwanda the Tutsis collaborated with the colonialists in oppressing the Hutus. In the wake of the Belgians’ departure, the victims became victimizers as the Hutus set about massacring the Tutsis.
As the film begins, Rusesabinga is portrayed as a man who goes along to get along, his hard-won position as a manager at the Hotel necessitating a certain amount of quid pro quo with the powerful. He just wants a good life for himself and his family and hopes the madness rising around him will go away. When it becomes clear that it won’t, he brings to bear all his finesse and understanding of Realpolitik to save his “guests”.
Having just seen ‘Notre Musique’ last week, the words of a guest at the European Literary Encounters in Godard’s film echoed in my mind as I watched this one: “Violence leaves a permanent scar. To see your fellow man turn on you leaves a feeling of deep-rooted horror.”
This film makes you feel that fear, the powerlessness. However, I can’t help wondering whether Godard would approve of it. He famously disapproved of ‘Schindler’s List’, the film to which ‘Hotel Rwanda’ has been most often compared, which he felt did not adequately deal with “the horror”. After all, this film is not about the slaughter as much as it is about Rusesabinga's struggle to save the 1,200.
A tough critic might also note that there is a sense in which doing a film on 10-year-old crimes is a safe way to confer saintliness on the filmmakers and to guarantee Oscar nods.
Such criticisms would be unfair. Rusesabinga is a man who showed heroic selflessness and the film tells his story powerfully. Further, the film is to be commended for focusing on its African leads rather than on the Caucasian supporting characters and for indicting the West for (among other things) evacuating its citizens from the Hotel while leaving the Africans to probable slaughter.
The remarkable Cheadle is up for a best actor Oscar. Equally good is the British actress Sophie Okonedo as his Tutsi wife Tatiana; she has deservedly been given a nod for a best supporting actress Oscar. The film’s also up for its original screenplay by Keir Pearson and Terry George (George also directed).
- Feb 11, 2005