Production Company: United Artists
Director: Terry George
Principals: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix
Rating: PG-13 (Violence, disturbing images and brief, strong language)
By Gregg Tubbs
(UMCom)—Hurricanes and tsunamis proved again in 2004 just how fragile human life is in the face of nature’s fury. We also saw a great flood of humanitarian relief for victims both around the block and around the world. Ten years ago, a humanitarian crisis occurred that dwarfed this year’s casualty numbers. But there were some striking and heartbreaking differences.
This was not the result of nature, but of man. And the outpouring of aid we’ve seen for recent natural disasters was strangely absent. Director, Terry George’s harrowing new film Hotel Rwanda transports us to the middle of the moral morass that was the 1994 Rwanda crisis, and asks the age-old question “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
|Paul (Don Cheadle), his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), their children, and their neighbors are forced from their homes by the Interhamwe Army. © 2004 United Artists|
In early 1994, tensions between Rwandan ethnic groups, the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, boiled over when the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down. The Hutu-controlled media was quick to blame the assassination on the Tutsis, and to urge the Hutus to avenge the death. The following bloodbath approached genocide, as nearly one million Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, but also moderate Hutus, were indiscriminately slaughtered.
Hotel Rwanda shows us this dark period in recent history through the eyes of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina. Portrayed by the remarkable Don Cheadle, Rusesabagina’s eyes become the eyes of all humanity. Cheadle’s performance is one of rare power, compassion and most importantly, honesty. There’s not a false note, as he plays the unlikely real-life hero, often called the “Rwandan Schindler” who reluctantly assumes the role of life-saver to more than 1,200 Tutsi and Hutu refugees who take asylum in his hotel. Complicating matters is that Rusesabagina was Hutu, and his wife, Tatiana, was Tutsi.
Rusesabagina is a real operator, who exudes “style,” as he calls it, in everything from his crisp suits to the fine cigars and Scotch whisky he dispenses to curry favor with local warlords and businessmen. He is aware of the growing hostility between the Hutus and Tutsis, but refuses to get involved. Just like many of us, he sees no urgency in a crisis that has not yet touched him personally, and he believes there is nothing he can really do. The power of this film is in watching Paul’s change of heart—a “conversion” from indifference, to concern, to courageous action. When a mob of Hutus begins killing Tutsis on his own street, his concern is intensely local—the protection of his own family and neighbors. But as the horror of thousands of dead Tutsis sinks in, his definition of “neighbor” broadens to include all those in danger.
|Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte) and Paul (Don Cheadle) discuss the dangerous conditions outside the hotel. © 2004 United Artists|
Although Rusesabagina is ultimately heroic, even risking his own life for the refugees in his care, his transformation is slow and halting. Rather than diminishing his heroism, I believe this makes his story more gripping and believable. It also helps us identify with this ordinary person, who in extraordinary circumstances, becomes extraordinary himself. It’s also notable that after he has determined to do all he can to save the lives of those hiding in his hotel, he never resorts to violence. He and others, including the determined U.N. Colonel and a compassionate Red Cross worker remain agents of peace and life during a time of violence and death.
Hotel Rwanda asks the audience to ponder some of the great questions of human nature—some of them obvious, some not. How can mankind, with such a capacity of for compassion and sacrifice, also be capable of cruelty and murder? How can hate and racial discrimination turn a nation against itself? Why is it that some people are capable of taking a human life, and others, like Rusesabagina, see murder as an absolute moral barrier that can’t be crossed? What is our responsibility to our fellow man? And, of course, what can one person do? As the famous saying goes, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Rusesabagina had to come to the realization that he couldn’t save everyone, but he saved who he could.
|Paul (Don Cheadle) risks his own life to house Tutsi refugees at the hotel he manages. © 2004 United Artists|
One of the most chilling moments of the film, is the voice of a radio interviewer talking to an evasive official about the use of verbal semantics in order to avoid acknowledging and acting on actual genocide in Rwanda. “How many ‘acts of genocide’ does it take before it becomes genocide?” she asked. When the lights came up at the end of the film, I was left with a question myself. In the last century, we’ve seen the Holocaust, Cambodia’s “killing fields” and most recently, Rwanda. So, how many times will we say “never again,” before it really means “never again?”
Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.