The most tempting mistake when one looks at an event like the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is to think that if you talk to all the right people, read all the right books or see the right movies, you will understand. We want understanding to be the destination to which all thought leads us, and yet, sometimes, there really is no final destination to get to.
Hotel Rwanda is what movies should be like when they tackle significant bits of history. It is a magnificent attempt at telling a story that can never be fully understood through the experience of a single man who lived it. Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) was the servile, accommodating manager of the ritzy Hotel Des Milles Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, when the genocide began. The story begins with him in search of the right lobster and the right Cuban cigars with which to impress his guests. The man’s apotheosis comes much later in the movie in a remarkable scene in which he, still a servant in many ways, but no longer servile and accommodating, browbeats a Hutu general into doing his bidding so that the people he has taken under his charge will live.
In between the two scenes is the carnage that was the Rwandan genocide in which almost a million people are thought to have been slaughtered by their neighbors while an apathetic international community stood by and did nothing.
Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of how, over the 100 days of the genocide, Rusesabagina harboured friends, relatives and strangers in the once-swanky hotel thereby saving them from certain death. His courage and resourcefulness are daunting. The most tender and heart-wrenching moments come when he and his wife, Thacienne, portrayed by Sophie Okonedo, ponder what at times seems like the inevitable end to their family. In one particularly gripping scene Rusesabagina exacts from his tearful wife a murder-suicide pledge on the simple premise that leaping from the roof of the hotel is preferable to death by machete.
Over and over again, Hotel Rwanda skirts clich©s and deftly avoids them through the skill of the actors and the art of the writers. Most of the more graphic elements that were at the heart of the Rwandan tragedy are embodied by single characters and this technique becomes a powerful instrument in director Terry George’s didactic portrayal of the unexplainable.
At the heart of the story and the embodiment of the western world’s uncaring ineptitude is the character portrayed by Nick Nolte, a UN commander on the ground who starts off emasculated and ends up angry, and still emasculated. There is the Hutu general who embodies the greed and corruption of a small man with big power. There is an obstreperous Hutu hotel staff member who grasps at genocide and anarchy as an easy route to sex, power and settling old scores. There is a woman Red Cross driver with her heart in the right place who works at little bits of mercy while thousands go unaided. There is a cynical journalist, content to cover the story from the safety of the hotel, while his cameraman actually does venture out into the body-strewn streets to chronicle the tragedy. One of the most interesting minor characters is the businessman from Belgium who owns the Hotel Des Milles Collines and who, in the course of the two-hour movie, is really the only foreigner who manages, from a vast distance, to intervene successfully in one of the many crises faced by the hotel refugees. (“I got to someone in the French president’s office,” he explains.)
The violence of the genocide, the sheer overwhelming scale and depth of it, is effectively depicted through its understatement. There are no scenes bathed in blood; rather, the violence is depicted largely as television footage observed by the people in the hotel. These are scenes much as those we ourselves observed 10 years ago on our own televisions. This time, with the slaughter condensed on a big screen and given several very human faces, we care more than we did back then. Therein lies the tragedy of Rwanda; therein, for that matter, lies our own tragedy.
Vianney Carriere is director of communications and information resources at General Synod, the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada.