by Jeff Meyers
“I don’t think we have any national interest there. The Americans are out, and as far as I’m concerned, in Rwanda, that ought to be the end of it.”
—Bob Dole, April 6, 1994
In 1994, extremist Rwandan Hutus killed nearly 900,000 of their fellow countrymen (mostly Tutsis), in one of the more shameful examples of the United States and its allies turning their backs on a country overwhelmed by madness and evil. By vetoing all official U.N. declarations of genocide (a term that would have obligated the United States to intervene), the United States left nearly an eighth of Rwanda’s population to be butchered, mostly by machetes, in less than four months.
In this harrowing political melodrama, writer-director Terry George (Some Mother’s Son) pulls no punches when indicting Europeans and Americans for protecting their own citizens while leaving Rwandans to die. A former journalist, George brings an acute sense of context and history to the story of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the hotel manager of the Milles Collines, a four-star Belgian resort, and accidental savior of nearly 1,200 people. Rusesabagina, a soft-spoken Hutu who believes in civility and decorum, uses diplomacy, flattery, bribery and obfuscation to safeguard Tutsis sheltered inside the resort’s walls.
There’s a moment in the film where Nick Nolte, playing a compassionate U.N. peacekeeper, tells Rusesabagina that the United Nations is pulling out, that no one will be coming to Rwanda’s aid. “The West, all the superpowers, they think you’re dirt,” he spits. “They think you’re dung. You’re not even a nigger. You’re African.”
It’s hardly subtle but quite effective. George wants to shame us for turning a blind eye on such a monumental (and possibly avoidable) tragedy. As pampered Americans, we were complicit in the devaluing of African lives. We simply didn’t care enough.
Joaquin Phoenix, in a terrific cameo as a photographer, drunkenly laments that the brutal footage he’s shot of machete-wielding mobs will probably change nothing. “If people see this they’ll say, ‘Oh, my God. That’s horrible.’ Then they’ll go on eating their dinners.’”
Comparisons to Schindler’s List are inevitable. Both Schindler and Rusesabagina were company men on the right side of conflict who refused to accept the horror around them and saved as many lives as they could.
While not nearly as masterfully artful (or horrifying) as Spielberg’s much celebrated film, Hotel Rwanda does succeed in the one place Schindler failed: depicting a protagonist whose motives we fully understand. Despite Liam Neeson’s fine performance, his Schindler remained a frustrating cipher, a man whose heroism seemed to bloom from nowhere. The motives behind Rusesabagina’s actions and his growing courage, however, are very real and very human.
Eschewing grand gestures, Cheadle does an outstanding job of portraying Rusesabagina as a cultured and understated man who, at first, hopes only to save his family, and in particular his Tutsi wife. As the world around him descends into madness, he’s forced to accept that the quiet and cultivated life he’s carved out for his family is forever lost.
The further realization that his “friends” and colleagues are little more than opportunists who would betray him without pangs of conscience leads him to use his skills to save the refugees. It’s a difficult decision for this ordinary man. What’s remarkable is that, faced with indifferent officials, corrupt generals and rampaging mobs, Rusesabagina always maintains a sense of dignity and decency.
There are missteps in the film to be sure. Some of the dialogue falls flat and the pace periodically flags. Director George is good at ramping up the suspense but strangely restrained in his depictions of violence. One wonders why a film unafraid to confront the Western world’s indifference to Third World suffering would soften the blow when depicting the unspeakable brutality perpetrated by the Rwandans.
There are films that, while far from perfect, should be regarded, and even praised, for the importance of the story they tell. Hotel Rwanda, a very good but not great film, is an effective and important dramatization of an event no one should forget or allow to be repeated.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.