"Until the philosophy, which holds one race superior and another inferior, is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war. And until there are no longer first-class nor second-class citizens of any nation, until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes, I've got to say, ‘War!' And until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, there is war. And until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, and the rule of international morality, will remain but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained. Now everywhere is war! War in the east, war in the west, war up north, war down south. This is war."
-Bob Marley and the Wailers in the song War, which was inspired by a speech given to the United Nations by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1968
One of the most harrowing and inspirational films in recent memory is the 2004 historical drama Hotel Rwanda. Directed and co-written by Terry George, the film is the devastating account of real-life hero, Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in Kigali, who saved over a thousand people during the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide.
When Terry George set about creating this film, he hoped that he would help raise awareness of the genocide and praise the remarkable courage and compassion of Paul Rusesabagina, but he also hoped that he would be able to create a commercially accessible piece of movie entertainment. For the most part he's succeeded rather astonishingly, though I have a few reservations that I'll mention later. Another hope that Terry George had was that Hotel Rwanda would be the first in a series of films to examine this portion of history in a dramatic context. Since Hotel Rwanda's release there have been two other films that have dealt with the genocide. The first of these two films is the emotionally explosive and historically accurate Sometimes in April and the second film is Beyond the Gates (known as Shooting Dogs outside of the U.S.), which is equally powerful despite it being a fictional account. Both of these films are greater achievements than Hotel Rwanda when you look at them historically.
After the assassination of President Habyarimana, the shaky peace treaty between the militant Hutu majority and the civilian Tutsi minority is broken. The Hutu army and the President's personal militia activate a ruthless plan to murder all Tutsis in Rwanda. As the country descends into fear and madness, assistant hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina finds himself, his family, and over a thousand other Rwandans taking refuge in the Milles Collines hotel. There at the hotel, Paul uses his intelligence and resourcefulness to protect the refugees from the onslaught that carries on outside.
Meanwhile U.N. soldiers stand by helplessly under the order that they are stationed in Rwanda, not to enforce or uphold peace, but to keep the peace and observe it. Since violence has already broken out on a massive scale, their vaguely defined objective is rendered moot and their presence, as a military force, is completely superfluous. Many of the wish to defend the Tutsis from the escalating slaughter, but they aren't given authorization to use their weapons, thus making them inactive and obsolete amidst all the chaos and destruction. Since the U.N. fails to take a stand against the violence, Paul is forced to negotiate, bribe, and even beg with Hutu officers in order to keep those at the hotel safe. As his efforts raise the attention of the Hutu army and militia, Paul and his wife, Tatiana must risk everything to protect their family and the refugees from being butchered by the machete-wielding Hutus.
When the opportunity arises for Paul and his family to be safely escorted out of the country, he must decide whether to go and save himself and his loved ones, or to stay and provide a safe haven for those at the hotel.
Part of what makes Hotel Rwanda so effective is its cast, including Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, Sophie Okonedo as Tatiana, Nick Nolte as Colonel Oliver, and Joaquin Phoenix as Jack Daglish. Don Cheadle's performance is nothing short of phenomenal as he brings humanity, compassion, and conviction to the role of Paul Rusesabagina. Equally impressive is Sophie Okonedo as Paul's wife Tatiana. Both actors display their talents and give heart-wrenching performances, while at the same time reminding us, the viewers, of all those Rwandan families that endured such unthinkable hardships and atrocities, only to be forgotten by the whites of the Western world. Both Nick Nolte's and Joaquin Phoenix's characters are fictitious, though they are comprised of traits that belonged to actual individuals. Despite the remarkable performances of the cast, the film is marred by the use of these fictional characters, which are used to propel the storyline and to give the complex events being depicted a greater level of accessibility to the audience. Even many of the real-life figures have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.
Now, despite my admiration and respect for any film that attempts to memorialize or pays tribute to the heroes who fought to preserve sanity during the genocide, I feel that where this film fails is that it gives little focus to the victims, those that lost their lives and underwent such unnecessary anguish for no other reason that they were different than the majority, the status quo. It would also have been nice to see a greater African influence on this film, but instead we get predominantly European and American actors, writers, director, and crew. Perhaps this is because of the guilt that the U.K. and U.S. felt about having not intervened during the genocide or perhaps this is further evidence of racism and prejudice against Africans. It does seem odd that not one of the four leading actors in this film set in Africa is African. Yeah, there are some African actors playing in minor roles, but that's about it. I find it highly unlikely that there were no actors in Africa capable of playing these parts.
But I digress.
Even though the film is skillfully acted and directed, I felt some disappointment in the choices made by the filmmakers, who seemed more concerned with creating a commercial movie than creating a historically accurate depiction of the events as they occurred. However, I'd rather not focus on the deviations from historical reality and instead I'd like to focus on the emotional truths at the heart of the film's story.
The screenplay was conceived of by Keir Pearson, who was interested in telling a story about the Rwandan genocide on screen. Pearson's passion for the story attracted, not only high profile filmmakers, but also some of the actual survivors of the genocidal massacre. After an extensive period of interviewing people and doing research, Pearson wrote the screenplay, which was rewritten by Terry George, who wanted to trim out the excessive political and historical overtones of the script and focus almost entirely on the Rusesabaginas experiences. Though this decision may have limited the film's scale and sense of event, it did allow for greater insight into Paul and Tatiana's psychologies and the affect that the genocide had on their family.
After the film was completed, Paul and Tatiana Rusesabagina, as well as some other survivors, were given an opportunity to see it before it was released theatrically. In spite of the liberties that were taken with historical fact and the sensitivity of the issue, the film was celebrated and accepted by most. As you can imagine it must have been a difficult process to watch the most traumatic events of your lifetime as dramatized on screen and projected larger than life, but Paul's reaction was one of gratefulness. He was grateful that finally attention was being brought to what happened in Rwanda, and he was hopeful that people's exposure to the film would bring a better sense of understanding and empowerment to those who can make a difference. He hoped that if people could see the horrors of what took place in Rwanda that the next time a country cries out for help, that the next time a people are being threatened and raped and murdered, that the next time that human rights are being so grossly violated, that we will intervene, not out of guilt or out of anger, but out of a genuine interest and concern for the welfare of all human beings.
From April to July in 1994, over 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered… and it could have been prevented. Genocides occur more than realize and they are not limited to one country or to one culture. Throughout history and throughout the world, there have been instances when one group of people attempts to subjugate, dehumanize, and destroy another. This can and must be stopped, but if we turn a blind eye to these atrocities by letting our apathy, our indifference, or our feelings of helplessness keep us from standing up for one another, then acts of hatred and bigotry like these will proliferate.
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