Click here 5 stars

Sophie Okeneda, Don Cheadle
2004 United Artists. All rights reserved.
Sophie Okonedo,
Don Cheadle
in "Hotel Rwanda."
 

Witnesses to horror
Brilliant film chronicles modern genocide

"Hotel Rwanda"

Reviewed by Carlos deVillalvilla
April 2005

The thing about human beings, is that even when you hit us in the face with a two by four, we still don't get it. Many of us read the history books about the Holocaust and the Nazi Final Solution, Hitler's attempt to exterminate Jews, Gypsies and millions of other people he didn't like. We read about how many people turned a blind eye to the horrors of the 1930s and '40s and we comfort ourselves by saying, "I'd never do that."

And yet we do. The same thing happened in Rwanda in 1994, and nobody seemed to notice. It's happening now, in the Sudan, but nobody speaks up. The consequences of silence can be terrible. Ask the Tutsis of Rwanda, if you can find any. There are significantly fewer of them now.

Paul Ruesesabagina (played in this excellent film by Don Cheadle) lived in Rwanda in 1994. He was the assistant manager of the swank Hotel Des Milles Colline, and a good one. Calm, efficient and competent, he used bribery, flattery and an impeccable sense of style to please his guests and grease the wheels of a corrupt system in the former Belgian colony that is now Rwanda. He lived a life of quiet comfort with his family.

But there are storm clouds on the horizon. The Belgians, while they occupied their former colony, had arbitrarily divided the people into two "tribes" — the lighter skinned, smaller-nosed were dubbed Tutsis and were given the authority to help them run the country. Inexplicably, when the Belgians left, they gave power to the Hutus. Animosities over years of oppression boiled over into a genocidal hatred, whipped up by a radio announcer/importer named George Rutuganda (Hakeem Kae-Kazim).

Paul, a Hutu, is unconcerned at first. When his brother-in-law comes to warn him of impending disaster, he dismisses the warnings as hysteria. Then it begins, suddenly, brutally, given the excuse of the murder of the Rwandan president, ostensibly by Tutsi rebels, with whom a peace treaty has just been signed under the good auspices of the UN and the commander of their peacekeeping forces, Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte).

Now, Paul is faced with friends, neighbors and employees who are at risk because they are Tutsis. Paul's wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo, previously seen in "Dirty Pretty Things") is also Tutsi, as are his children. His safe world crumples amidst anarchy, chaos and brutal violence. Men, women and children are slaughtered by machetes, hacked to pieces by the hundreds. Paul and his family barely escape the carnage and make it to the hotel, where white European guests are panicking, trying to get out of a country gone berserk. Refugees, orphans left by a Red Cross worker (Cara Seymour) begin to pour into the hotel. Paul, realizing that turning them away would be tantamount to a death sentence, takes them in, confident that he can wait out the storm until the west sends help.

But help is not forthcoming. The Americans, stung by their experiences in Somalia, don't wish to walk into another hornet's nest. The rest of the European nations follow suit. As the foreign nationals are all evacuated, Paul realizes that they must save themselves. And in order to do that, he must maintain the illusion that the Hotel des Milles Collines is still a five-star resort, a place of style where even the generals and butchers who preside at massacres can go to feel civilized.

DVD notes

MGM doesn't put a whole lot of effort into its DVD packages. There are several commentary tracks, from director Terry George, the real Paul Ruesesabagina and Cheadle, but there are mostly previews of other MGM products here. There are, however two featurettes worth the price of purchase. "Return to Rwanda" follows Ruesesabagina on his first trip back to Rwanda after the genocide, visiting sites of important events of the genocide (including a particularly moving trip to a place where 45,000 people were massacred; their bodies remain as they were, having turned unearthly white in the intervening years, their clothes hanging on a clothesline). There is also a very impressive Making Of feature, which chronicles writer Keir Pearson's initial contacts with the story, and the impressions of nearly everyone involved with the making of the movie and Ruesesabagina himself.

— Carlos deVillalvilla

"Hotel Rwanda" is harrowing. There are many irrational men with guns committing acts of unspeakable horror, and Cheadle, as Paul, is our eyes and ears. There is a scene where he is driving down the River Road in the early morning fog on the advice of the monstrous Rutuganda, when the car begins to hit a very rough road. Paul, fearing they have gone off the road, orders the driver to stop. He gets out of the car to see if they are still on the pavement and is met with the sight of hundreds of bodies lying in the road as far as the eye can see, children whose faces are grimaces of terror and pain. After returning to the hotel, he goes to change his shirt, which has been stained with the blood of the corpses on the road in the employee locker room. Attempting to tie his tie, he at last gives in to the overwhelming emotions of what he has witnessed and breaks down. It is a powerful, powerful scene, performed by a brilliant actor.

Don Cheadle earned an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and there are a lot of compelling reasons why he should have won, instead of Jamie Foxx. Rather than making Paul a perfect hero, he humanizes him and becomes the audience's surrogate. Like all of us, sometimes he just doesn't know enough to get out of the rain, even when the thunder is booming in his ears. He is in nearly every scene and carries the movie. Cheadle characterizes Paul as a kind of African Oskar Schindler, which in truth, he was. Okonedo is also magnificent, for which she was duly recognized with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

There is no denying the power of this film. You are immediately sucked into the situation, and affected by it. You may wonder, as I did, "Why the hell didn't I know this was going on? Why didn't my country do anything about it?" As an embittered reporter, played in a cameo by Joaquin Phoenix says, "I think if people see this footage, they'll say 'Oh, my God, that's horrible.' And then they'll go on eating their dinners."

"Hotel Rwanda" should be required viewing for every American and every European. We should see this powerful movie, not to feel bad about ourselves, but for us to look at the images of genocide and say "Not again. Not in my lifetime." And, above all, to take action, to demand our leaders take action. We may feel safe and secure in our world. I'm sure the real Paul Ruesesabagina did. So did many German Jews in 1936.

The storm clouds can gather anywhere.

AT HOME OR AT A THEATER?

If a revival or art house is carrying it (it is still playing in a few theaters), try to catch it on the big screen. The African vistas and the power of the images are even more effective in a dark theater.

Buy the DVD at Amazon.com.

See cast, credit and other details about "Hotel Rwanda" at Internet Movie Data Base.