A film review by Craig J. Koban
2004, R, 110 mins.
Paul Rusesabagina: Don Cheadle / Tatiana: Sophie Okonedo / Col. Oliver: Nick Notle / Jack: Joaquin Phoenix /
Directed by Terry George / Written by Keir Pearson and George
HOTEL RWANDA is one of the more frustrating and infuriating portraits of shameful world politics that I have ever seen. I use the term “shameful” very specifically for a purpose.
In April of 1994 animosity between the two ethnic groups in Rwanda – the Hutus and the Tutsis – erupted into a full scale and bloody Civil War. Hutu extremists subsequently set out to completely exterminate the Tutsi people in what would eventually become one of the most barbaric massacres in recent world history. An astronomical number of people perished – one million by conservative counts.
The true shame of this “genocide” involved the lack of care, attention, and proactive action by the Western Powers to assist Rwanda. Very little, if anything, was done to help even modestly alleviate the hardships that were dealt to the innocent people that were needlessly slaughtered. HOTEL RWANDA, a powerful and blunt new film that deals with this ultimate atrocity, poses a frank and problematic question: What is worse – the mass extermination of a race of people for deplorable reasons or the genuine lack of aid that countries gave to combat this?
Clearly, as this film supports, American attitudes towards the Rwandan genocide were clear in their very ineptitude. I have memories of President Clinton’s Press Secretary, at the time, engaging in news conferences and describing the acts by the Hutu extremists as “acts of genocide” that did not completely equal genocide. Huh? The insanity of inaction by the US is self-evident merely by listening to their political posturing. When the most powerful free nation in the world spends more time publicly in a semantic argument than with saving millions of lives, then my loss of faith in humanity just took a nosedive into despair.
HOTEL RWANDA is an unsettling, frank, stark, and a completely moving wakeup call for all of us that were completely ignorant to the plight of the Tutsi people nearly over a decade ago, and it does so by crafting a well-realized human story among the mayhem. Some critics have been cruel to this film by saying that it was not graphic and barbaric enough to drive home its point (the film was rated appropriately PG-13, and is not altogether violent, considering the subject matter), but those critics kind of miss the point altogether. The pain and suffering that this film shows is not merely in terms of the innocent lives that were slaughtered in broad daylight in the streets; rather, this film focuses on the social implications of the genocide and how it affected people and drove them into action. The message of the hardships this film deals with are not as volatile and explicit as a film like SCHINDLER’S LIST, but HOTEL RWANDA is still hypnotic and heart-wrenching, mostly on a level of its keen and astute performances. This is one of the more moving pictures of 2004.
I also call this film “frustrating” and for apt reasons. I must confess my own guilt in knowing little or not reading very much into the mass Rwandan genocide. Yet, this is precisely the point – how could I not have heard of or read much about the elimination of a million people? The sheer number alone is mind-boggling (that would be the equivalent of my Canadian home province of Saskatchewan, which is scary enough). Sure, there were brief (all-too-brief) news clips and newspaper blips about it, but the coverage of the genocide was underwhelming to a large degree. That is why HOTEL RWANDA is not only a great film but an important one – it serves to draw out and explain the injustices that have occupied a country’s social and political history, not too mention the senselessness of not only the action of the Hutus, but the inaction by the world around them to do anything about it. The more I think about this film, even days after seeing it, the more despised I become by the inaction over the actions themselves.
Yet, HOTEL RWANDA, as ironic as it seems, is not ostensibly about the massacre. Much like SCHINDLER’S LIST, it is more about a selfless man and how his lone actions, arguably, did more good than any neighboring country. The film is about a hotel manager whose own utter disdain for the collapse of social order in his country acts as a catalyst for action – he eventually saved nearly 1200 lives mostly because he gave them all save refuge in his hotel and, more importantly, because he was a shrewd business man who knew how to talk his way out of bad situations.
This real life figure is Paul Rusesabagina, as played by an absolutely career making performance by Don Cheadle (an underrated talent if there ever was one). Paul emerges in this film as a better, more competent and sane diplomat that any of his contemporary politicians. As we are introduced to him early in the film, before the atrocities begin, we see him as a slick, mannered, and well-presented man of competence, intelligence, charm, sophistication, and charisma that is respected and liked. Cheadle plays the man in all of those avenues and more, in one of the more richly textured performances of recent memory. His Paul is the kind of man that, despite the sheer chaos of what he has to go through, seems to have the impeccable forethought of knowing exactly what to do. He does not just get by and save over a thousand lives by his charm alone, but he also uses carefully placed bribes, flattery, compliments, and well intentioned deceptions to save his family and those countless around him. He knows, for example, how much a well-placed bribe to a soldier of a thousand franks could be as powerful as a compliment to another later on. The amount of poise, restraint, and calm that Paul manages to maintain, for the most part, is amazing, and it’s a true testament to his character – Paul is a real life, mild mannered superhero.
Paul is a Hutu and is married to a Tutsi named Tatiana (in another of the film’s great performances by Sophie Okonedo). Paul has definitely been around – he was trained in Belgium and runs a four star hotel – the Des Milles Collines – in Kigali. Paul, much like Oscar Schindler, is a shrewd and cunning businessman who does his job well and enjoys all of its perks. He intuitively understands all of the behind-the-scene politics that are the day-to-day operations of his establishment. He’s not too unlike Rick from CASABLANCA in a way – he realizes just how to accommodate those in power, even if those in power make him inwardly sick.
Some may find Paul’s initial dealings a bit distasteful, but it is these very skills in hospitality that aid him completely when the bullets start blaring across the city streets. Since he knows how to make people happy and give them what they need and want, Paul is sort of able to make the transition from hotel manager to refugee handler. When the genocide begins, Paul may be, begrudgingly at first, a willing participant in saving lives, but by the end of the film we bare witness to a man that made huge personal sacrifices to save complete strangers. In fact, he had a few distinct opportunities to save himself and his family, but elected not to. Under most normal circumstances, no one would have complained if he left his country for safety. However, in Paul’s eyes, he would have.
The film is very wise in its choice of focus. It could have been a violent and blood coated odyssey into the genocide itself. Yet, HOTEL RWANDA uses it as a backdrop for a larger story of human courage, will, bravery, determination, and fortitude. That is why the film resonates so deeply. Yes, we would viscerally react to the depictions of the genocide itself, but the reactions to it are as powerful if not more moving. Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST could have learned something from this film - sometimes, less is more. Some of the characters presented in the film are conglomerations of a series of real figures, but Paul and his family were real, as were his daring actions. To me, the film is made or broken by this intimate story, and on this level it succeeds.
Paul was not alone in his journey of survival. There was a United Nations presence in Rwanda, and in this film it’s presented in the form of a Canadian Peacekeeper Col. Oliver (in the film’s most thankless performance by Nick Nolte). Oliver is a figure that almost equally demands our sympathies as much as Paul’s. He sees where the country is headed, becomes exposed to the murders, relays this to his superiors, and when he is ignored we feel his frustration. Paul, like Oliver, also informs his superiors in Brussels but is also largely ignored. Ultimately what happens is a tag team of sorts between the two men to stay alive and ensure the survival of others. They became surrogate guardians for the Tutsi and their strife became their preoccupation as well. Just consider the hardships of Oliver’s job as a peacekeeper – as bullets are shot at them and death looms, he’s still under orders never to shoot first, if not ever for the most part.
I have rarely seen a film where all of the performances are so uniformly good. Nolte, in one his best recent performances, sort of comes off as a master of steadfast and cynical edge, doing what he must do when others are not willing to take action. Yet, the film is completely owned by Cheadle, and his work as Paul deserved his recent Oscar nomination. It’s a quiet, yet forceful and multi-layered performance that really draws the viewer in to look at this man without judging him. He is a frightened man to be sure, and despite the fact that he is Hutu and most likely will not die, his wife and children clearly are targets. Yet, he painstakingly holds it together. He bribes. He steals. He lies. But he does all of this to ensure that thousands can live and not perish. His actions can never be held accountable as questionable – they were a necessity.
HOTEL RWANDA emerges as one of the more riveting films about harrowing survival, perseverance, and resolve. In a way, it achieves two key objectives – firstly, it draws attention to the cruel and vile atrocities that occurred in 1994 that were widely under covered and it points a shameful finger at Western powers that laid largely dormant during the genocide and did nothing. The film is not painted on a large, epic canvas like other historical films. This is a small, calm, and intrinsically drawn historical account of one man’s actions in the face of disaster. The film is unflinching is how it shows how a few modest men with equally modest means can, in effect change history. Not only that, but the film marries succinctly powerful storytelling, rich performances, and hard-hitting themes. It also, rather unequivocally, makes one appreciate the value of human life that much more. No more is this true than in one key scene in the film where Paul tells an American journalist his hopes for Western involvement in stopping the genocide. The journalist sort of matter-of-frankly responds that Americans will look at the devastation, say how horrible it is, and then go back and complacently eat their dinners.
How sad and shameful indeed, as that is what largely happened.