Hotel Rwanda

All one has to do is sit through Hotel Rwanda to arrive at the same question. As the rest of the world turned their back, Rwanda experienced a bloody civil war that over the course of three months left more than one million people dead and butchered.

Set in 1994, Hotel Rwanda is a rare exception to the rule: a message movie that doesn’t feel like a message movie. Director and co-writer (with Keir Pearson) Terry George puts a human face on the tragedy through the presence of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), Rwandan manager of the four-star Hôtel des Mille Collines, in Kigali.

As a Hutu, Rusesabagina moves about freely, using his status to corral favors. Even as a peace treaty between the Hutus and the Tutsi populations is forged, Rusesabagina is aware that a civil war can break out at any moment. To insure the safety of non-Nationals, the UN sends peacekeepers, led by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), to guard the hotel.

When the Hutu leader is killed in a suspected terrorist attack, rebels move through the streets, slaughtering Tutsi families. Incapable of doing anything, even when their men are killed, the peacekeepers do their best to protect the hotel, whose guest list has now swelled to include over one thousand Tutsi refugees.

Cheadle is excellent as Rusesabagina, a family man who turns to routine in order to survive chaos. As the civil war rages outside the hotel walls, Rusesabagina and his staff do their best to maintain the illusion of sanity. Simple routines become vines of hope, something to cling to when their world starts to crumble. Cheadle approaches Rusesabagina as a simple man of honor, unassuming and willing to sacrifice himself if it means saving his family and friends.

Avoiding propaganda, Hotel Rwanda explores the genocide with unflinching honesty. George never feels compelled to exploit the tragedy. Rusesabagina is presented as heroic but never saintly. He suffers through great moments of reflection, making honest but difficult decisions. Hotel Rwanda effectively allows the audience to undertake Rusesabagina’s journey of self-awareness. The more he learns the more we learn. When Rusesabagina’s eyes are finally wide open, we are appalled at what he sees.

As all hell breaks loose, Hotel Rwanda finds time to explore the human side of the conflict. The relationship and conversations Rusesabagina shares with his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) feel genuine. Okonedo is the films emotional rock, a woman who not only understands the severity of her situation, but is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if it means her family’s survival. Paul and Tatiana are soul mates, two people cut from the same cloth. When they share a Goodbye Girl moment on the rooftop of the hotel, we care about these two people so much we almost feel like intruders.

George creates images that are disturbing but unavoidable. It would have been easy to grab our hearts and minds with graphic images of slaughter, but George wants to educate rather than eviscerate. His efforts to avoid violence becomes a stronger statement than filling the screen with blood and guts. We see what we need to see, mostly in long shots, and in one absolutely chilling moment, becoming unwitting passengers down a body-lined road.

Nolte is powerful in one of the film’s pivotal declarations, a truth met with stupefying disbelief. In just a few short words, Colonel Oliver lays it all on the line, and what he has to say will leave the audience equally stunned.

Genocide With Reservations

Hotel Rwanda Opens Door to Horrific History


Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix. Directed by Terry George. Rated PG-13. 118 Minutes.


Comments are closed.