Ties That Blind

Photo by Frank Connor

Hotel Rwanda, based on real lives and events, aims unequivocally to break your heart. Opening in Kigali, 1994, the film is set on the cusp of the Hutu-led genocide against their former overlords, the Tutsi, a massacre that left almost a million people dead. Filled with scenes of families fleeing machete-wielding mobs, children being ripped from the arms of weeping nuns, and long stretches of road laid thick with corpses, Hotel is blunt and unwavering in its mission to rouse the viewer’s conscience. But, blessed with a fantastically nuanced performance by Don Cheadle at its center, the film also tenders telling, intimate moments and a quickly but powerfully sketched historical backdrop to the ethnic strife, providing intellectual undercurrents to the emotionally wrenching scenes they bracket.

Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle), a Hutu, manages a swanky hotel in Rwanda where the guests are largely white Americans and Europeans; the staff is made up of the black locals. Bribing military officials and fledgling warlords alike, Paul procures black-market items for his white guests and the powerful African men who sip beer by the hotel’s pool. Though the Mille Collines couldn’t run without him, Paul’s head bumps a glass ceiling that he can’t — or won’t — acknowledge. At home, he lives with his Tutsi wife, Tatiana (Dirty Pretty Thing’s Sophie Okonedo), and their three children in a neighborhood that is largely Tutsi. While everyone else around him reads the portents in the air and knows that horror is on the horizon, Paul remains almost willfully naive, immersed in his job and desperate to believe the photo-ops and press spin that downplay the urgency of the escalating crisis. As violence mounts, eventually surging right up to his front door, Paul is slowly dragged into the world around him.

’Tis the season for tearjerkers, and it’s hard to imagine one more potent, or timely (c.f., the Sudan), than Hotel Rwanda. Director Terry George, working from a script he co-wrote with Keir Pearson, shoots the film in a straightforward manner, with no fancy camera work or editing dazzle to distract from the message. The score, by Andrea Guerra, Rupert Gregson-Williams and Afro Celt Sound System, ebbs and flows in exactly the the right proportions, giving way at the appropriate moment to nerve-wracking silence. Most potently, while refusing in the end to reduce this almost unfathomable tragedy to one man’s story of courage, the movie hooks viewers by having us ride shotgun to Paul’s awakening consciousness.

His epiphany after being told by Nick Nolte’s U.N. peacekeeper that the West views him and his people as "dirt, worthless," and therefore won’t intercede in the slaughter, is crushing. The film contains many such zingers: snippets from a radio broadcast in which a Western political spokeswoman says that while there have been "acts of genocide," they don’t meet the criteria for being declared genocide; the Tutsi man who gives the back story on the ethnic tensions and how they were created ("The Belgians used the Tutsi to run the country. Then when they left, they left the power to the Hutu. And, of course, the Hutu took their revenge on the Tutsi for years of repression"); Joaquin Phoenix’s well-intentioned photojournalist, listening to that same fellow explain how the Belgians managed their divide-and-conquer colonialist strategy: "According to Belgian colonists, the Tutsi were taller, more elegant. It was the Belgians who created the division. They [arbitrarily] picked those with thinner noses, lighter skin. They used to measure the width of people’s noses." Phoenix shakes his head and remarks that two women friends sitting next to him at the hotel bar — one Hutu, the other Tutsi — could be twins, they look so much alike. Except they don’t, and the film brilliantly lets his statement hang there.

Hotel Rwanda’s greatest insight rests on a paradox: how friendships can be forged, marriage taken and children born across the man-made divides of hatred. Those relationships may be flimsy shields against determined bigotry, the movie tells us, but they’re also the strongest weapons in the human arsenal.

HOTEL RWANDA Directed by TERRY GEORGE | Written by KEIR PEARSON and GEORGE | Produced by GEORGE and A. KITMAN HO | Released by MGM/United Artists | At the Grove, the Bridge and AMC Century City


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