dir: Terry George
[img_assist|nid=977|title=Don Cheedle with the guy he's playing in the film. Freaky.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=350|height=317]
Ah, the cinema of guilt. Worthy movies that seem to chide audiences and make you feel bad for a) not having been more concerned when something really bad happened in history, or b) feel even worse for not having seen the film sooner. All your bullshit excuses count as nought in the face of it. So you sheepishly file into the cinema one day, prepared to eat your greens and say it tastes like ice cream even if it doesn’t. Out of stinky, middle-class guilt.
If the film’s actually good then it’s a definite bonus. Because that way you don’t have to endure watching the film like it’s a trip to the proctologist just so you can convince other people that you are sooooo switched on and overflowing with compassion. Hotel Rwanda is just such a film.
It’s not Schindler’s List, but nor would you want to be. We don’t need another epic like that just yet. It’s still Oscarbait of the highest order, mostly because when a film is about such topics (the Rwandan massacres from the 90s), it feels like the height of insensitivity to raise any objections to even the slightest flaw, to mouth the tiniest of criticisms, you inhuman monster.
Really, it’s not like that. Any film, even one such as this in the genocide genre, still has to work the way that other films work for it to be considered a worthwhile use of my two hours or anyone else’s. It’s not a documentary, so it needs to have narrative, a plot, characters we believe in, a recognisable beginning and end, loud bits, quiet bits and in-between bits. And it’s no exaggeration to say that Hotel Rwanda has all those bits.
When telling such a story you want to avoid it sounding and looking like a lecture. So with a story so big you find at least one person and tell the story of how this massive event affected this person and the people around him, and what they did to survive it. They’ve achieved that here by centring the story around Paul Rusesabagina, a guy who did his darndest to save the people he could when hundreds of thousands of people were being butchered by some pretty nasty people. Don Cheadle does a superlative job in the role playing the guy like he’s just a guy caught up in an impossible situation, instead of some treacly hero. He is really good. I have to wonder why they couldn’t get an actual African actor to play the role but then I guess had they not had one of the stars of Ocean’s 11 and 12 the film might never have been made or at least gotten as much press as it did.
Paul is a manager at a four star hotel called the Milles Collines in Kigali, Rwanda. He is a smooth operator, always knowing how to stay on everyone’s good side and especially knows the art of gentle persuasion through constant acts of bribery and flattery. But more than that he has created what he believes is a niche for himself and his family by dint of his position and his importance at the Hotel Milles Collines.
Circumstances are of course going to show him how he’s been living in a fool’s paradise. The flick is set in 1994, and there is a slow build-up of tensions as Hutu extremists start putting a plan into action whereby not only do they take control of the country, but also start up their plan of total extermination of their hated Tutsi neighbours.
There is plenty of blame to go around, mostly aimed at the Belgian government that created the artificial distinction between Hutus and Tutsis to serve their colonialist goals (based not on ethnicity or geography, but on height and nose width), but most of the blame goes to both the UN for refusing to even call what was going on “genocide”, and at the feet and machetes of the fucking vile Hutu militias.
You’d expect the film to be brutal, because it is showing us a brutal time in history, but the violence depicted is not excessive. It’s more the ideas that are horrifying as we see snippets of Hutus setting up rape camps, leading people out of their homes to kill Tutsis based on what’s written on their personal identification papers, and tales of children being chopped to pieces by people who call them cockroaches. So many people are shown sitting around listening to a radio telling them to go out and “cut the tall trees” or “squash the cockroaches” and nodding their heads in agreement. And then you wonder why some people find talkback radio hard to stomach.
Despite being a Hutu this stills impacts directly on Paul’s life since his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) is apparently a Tutsi, and therefore prime target for the machetes of the Interhamwe militiamen. Paul and Tatiana have a loving, believable relationship, and there are a few touching, unforced scenes which show us the simple sweetness of the lives they used to lead before the madness took over.
Paul starts off believing that nothing’s going to happen despite the mounting evidence that the shit is going to hit the fan. Then he doesn’t believe that it’s going to be that bad. Then he believes that the world isn’t just going to sit idly by whilst they get slaughtered in their millions. By the time he realises just how bad everything is, it’s almost too late to do anything about it.
He moves from a position where he believes that it’s only his family he has to worry about, to the position where he can’t turn any of the many refugees that stream towards his hotel away because he knows first-hand what their fate is going to be. He is a man that is virtually in constant motion trying to keep it all afloat. It’s like watching those nutjobs spin plates on sticks, trying to keep fifteen of them going at once. It’s an incredible balancing act and as his position gets more desperate and the violence reaches a peak it seems as if it’s all going to be for nought.
The UN is impotently led by Colonel Oliver (a composite character) ably played by an exhausted looking Nick Nolte, who is seen continuously begging for help or latitude from his UN superiors and getting nowhere. Watching their failure to be able to do anything is as heartbreaking as anything else that happens in the film. Listening to him explain to Paul why no-one will help is also quite depressing because it’s probably true: [explaining why the world will not intervene] “You're black. You're not even a nigger. You're an African.”
Also depressing is the essential kernel of truth contained in the dialogue of a photo-journalist who tells Paul that once he gets footage he’s shot of the massacres shown back in the States or in Europe, after seeing it on the evening news people will say to each other “That’s horrible”, and then go back to eating their dinners
There is help that comes from unexpected quarters at certain points. You’d never have thought that a multinational corporation would ever be credited with helping people in a film that if nothing else highlights the tragedies resulting from colonialism and corporate exploitation of the third world, but The Man (in the form of Jean Reno) actually comes through at a certain point for our boy Paul. Which is, um, good, I guess.
Along the way as Paul wheels and deals he has some minor victories and some horrific set backs, but the story ebbs and flows, neither completely oppressive in its tone nor light-hearted by any definition. It still remains a tension-filled experience because I doubt any of us could know what the final outcome for Paul and his guests was going to be without having read up on him beforehand.
I commend Don Cheedle for another great performance in a career filled to bursting with good performances. He deserved his Oscar nomination and should be proud even if he didn’t win for it. I commend everyone involved, because it’s a good film about an important story, and I very much enjoyed it, at least as much as someone can enjoy films about genocide.
If you’re scared by the subject matter or role your eyes at the thought of being lectured for 2 hours, then fear not. And pull your fingers out of your nose and ears, you multi-tasker. It’s a film that’s worth it, compelling and tragic and uplifting and sad all at the same time, like everyday life only magnified a hundred times.
8 times you’ll think “something like this could never happen again” and be wrong out of 10
“There will be no rescue, no intervention for us. We can only save ourselves.” – Paul Rusesabagina, Hotel Rwanda