"Hotel Rwanda" stunningly dramatizes the much-overlooked Rwandan genocide with a truth-based story of lives saved amidst unimaginable carnage.
By PETER THEIS
Some films overwhelm criticism. Screening "Hotel Rwanda" (directed by Terry George), I took no notes, thought no thoughts outside the four corners of the screen. The moral freight of the true events, the total investment in the characters, the impotent rage inspired eclipsed all cinematic reflection, a luxurious entitlement rendered, in two hours, a trivial frivolity. Only after days had passed and the film's grip relaxed could I look back and analyze the film as a film, the product of artisans who made artistic choices.
Some familiarity with the Rwandan genocide and its historical background is helpful though not essential for appreciating the film. For a capsule history, click here.
|Directed by: Terry George.|
Written by: Keir Pearson, Terry George.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, Antonio David Lyons, Mothusi Magano, David O'Hara, Jean Reno, Cara Seymour.
Cinematography: Robert Fraisse.
Edited by: Naomi Geraghty.
Related links: Official site
The first artistic choice by the makers of "Hotel Rwanda" was the shrewdest, if not the bravest: selecting a story that is immersed in the horror of the event, yet also is a tension-filled tale of heroic triumph. How else to make a dramatization of genocide palatable for the cinematic consumption of a broad American audience? The film dramatizes the true life ordeal of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle, a great actor in a good, restrained performance), second-in-charge at Rwanda's finest luxury hotel. Paul, a Hutu, is married with children to Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), a Tutsi. When the genocidal storm comes, Paul uses all his wits, connections, and hotel resources to shelter his family, neighbors, and eventually over a thousand Tutsi and moderate Hutu refugees inside his hotel. Balancing on one leg of a creaky chair, Paul alone repeatedly and miraculously thwarts and outmaneuvers the army and interahamwe who cannot stand the idea of a large group of Tutsis continuing to survive through bribery, manipulation, bluff, luck, and eventually salvation at the hands of an invading rebel army.
The tale of courage and survival amidst murderous chaos is compelling enough on its own terms, but Cheadle and the filmmakers went further, dramatizing the moral development of Paul. Thus, Paul is not portrayed as an instant angel, but a Westernized, semi-blinded man who reluctantly acknowledges the reality around him, evolving from self-interested preserver of his family to begrudging Hutu savior to selfless, brilliant tactician on behalf of all refugees. Cheadle depicts the internal evolution flawlessly.|
One of the stronger features of the film is its method of portraying the hellish conditions on the ground, relying on a few brief, evocative scenes rather than making the film into an exercise in gruesome voyeurism (hardly required to evoke the horror of genocide). The less visible genius of the film lies in its integration into the narrative peripheral political comments and criticisms. These unobtrusively convey the film's (wholly accurate) theory of what made the genocide possible: the blatant indifference of the West to African lives.
The most poignant dramatization of this occurs when white nuns and priests arrive at the hotel, which is being used as a U.N. evacuation site, leading hundreds of Tutsi refugees. The whites believe that they have succeeded in getting the refugees to a point of evacuation, only to be told that only the whites are permitted to leave the country; the Africans must fend for themselves (a certain death sentence).|
More broadly, while the U.N. soldiers (commanded by Nick Nolte) present in the country are portrayed as heroes, their superiors abroad are called out for finks, refusing to let the soldiers do anything more than shoot in self-defense, and then pulling out 90% of the peacekeepers as the genocide heats up. (In real life, the U.N. Rwandan commander ventured that a mere 5,000 peacekeepers would end the massacre.) As it is in the historical record, the film makes clear who was twisting the U.N."s arm to guarantee inaction: the United States. (The film even includes verbatim the infamous squirming of State Department Spokeswoman Christine Shelley, who, on White House orders, was prohibited from using the word "genocide," which would trigger an obligation to intervene under the U.N. charter). "Hotel Rwanda" has a political perspective, even to the point of didacticism, but the perspective is so well integrated into the narrative that it serves only as the flesh of context, rather than an awkward graft.
"Hotel Rwanda" is undeniably shot from the perspective of a shocked Western conscience, and most white characters are gratuitously accorded more depth and significance than all but Cheadle's. Aside from this explicable distortion in lens, however, the film does not err. Perhaps the finest attribute of "Hotel Rwanda" is that the artistic choices are muted, understated. The architects of the film, as well as the players, made a conscious choice to stand small and be self-effacing, exercising filmmaking restraint and humility. There is no stylistic grandstanding and there are few overwrought moments; the near-vérité approach pays deference to the raw material of the story and context. The film astutely and respectfully aspires to competence, not cinematic greatness, creative glory, documentary authenticity, or actorly exhibitionism. And competence is all that was required to make this film a fine and devastating cinematic experience. With the current genocidal massacre in Darfur, Sudan (restarting again after a brief abatement; it could be easily halted with genuine condemnation from the Bush administration or a U.N. Security Council resolution), maybe we can get an equally compelling film in about ten years to once again remind us: Never again except in Africa.
|DECEMBER 22, 2004|
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