Set at the time of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, this is the true story of a hotel manager who sheltered twelve hundred refugees. Stars Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo both received Oscar nominations. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
Passion, conviction and a strong cast help Hotel Rwanda overcome its uninspired direction and occasionally heavy-handed script. Writer / director Terry George deserves credit simply for bringing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda to the attention of a wide audience. It’s a subject people tend to be vaguely aware of without knowing what actually happened. Hollywood’s only attempt to cover it is the 2003 Bruce Willis picture Tears Of The Sun, which was inspired by Rwanda but set in Nigeria during a fictitious civil war. It was an honourable failure which unfortunately allowed pyrotechnics and war movie cliches to overwhelm its subject matter. Hotel Rwanda, which was independently produced and internationally financed, is not without flaws itself but it comes a lot closer to the target. It provides a vivid look at one of the greatest tragedies of recent times and it has a raw emotional power that’s likely to leave you shaken.
Some background first: Rwanda is a small country in central Africa, populated by two tribes – the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Hutus, which make up the majority of the population, were originally farmers and the Tutsis were nomads who settled on the same land. The tribes lived together more or less peacefully for centuries, although there was a class divide in which the Tutsi minority were dominant. When Rwanda was invaded by Belgium in the early twentieth century, the colonialists found this class divide worked to their advantage. They educated and employed the Tutsis and used them to subjugate the Hutus. This led to a fierce tension between the tribes: the Tutsis looked down upon the Hutus and the Hutus despised the Tutsis as collaborators.
When Rwanda became independent in 1962, the Hutu majority took power. Ten years of tribal war followed. Tutsi militants wanted a return to political dominance while many Hutus wanted the Tutsis driven out or exterminated. President Habyarimana, the Hutu general who seized power in 1973, managed to keep the situation under control for twenty years but the hatred continued to ferment. It finally boiled over in April 1994 when the president’s plane was shot down, allegedly by Tutsi rebels. Without his moderating influence, extremists in the government declared war on the Tutsi population. The Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, began systematically exterminating the Tutsi “cockroaches”.
This brings us to Paul Rusesabinga (Don Cheadle), the unlikely hero of the story. Paul was the deputy manager of an upmarket, Belgian-owned Hotel in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali. It was the place important dignitaries and rich whites would stay when visiting the country and as such, it had a permanent armed guard provided by the United Nations. That meant when the president’s plane went down and all hell broke loose, Paul’s hotel was one of the few safe places in Kigali.
Paul was a Hutu and the nature of his job meant he had enough friends in high places to ensure his own safety. His wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) however was a Tutsi and when he came home after the trouble began, he discovered her, their children and a couple of dozen friends and relatives huddled, terrified in his bedroom. They’d watched their neighbours dragged out of their houses and driven away. Tatiana’s brother and his wife had disappeared. Rumours were spreading about mass killings.
Paul’s temporary solution was to take them all to his hotel and book them in as guests. The United Nations guards commanded by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte) dissuaded even the most fanatical militiamen from attempting to enter. Word soon spread that the hotel was a haven and more and more Tutsis started showing up. Twelve hundred refugees sought shelter there during the three months of bloodshed. At first, all Paul had to worry about was the logistical problem of housing twelve hundred people while they waited for the expected Western peacekeeping force to arrive. Tragically, that wasn’t to happen. As the crisis spiralled into civil war and genocide, the UN pulled out most of its already meagre presence, which left the hotel virtually unguarded. With a thirty-thousand-strong militia running riot on the streets, Paul had to call in every favour owed to him and use every trick he knew to keep himself, his family and his guests alive.
As a lesson in recent world history, Hotel Rwanda is vital. As cinema, it’s efficient but visually undistinguished and occasionally clumsy. Except for a few large-scale scenes, this could be a made-for-TV production. The limited budget is surely a factor but part of the problem is that Terry George is an unimaginative director. He works well with actors and he pulls off strong individual scenes, although this can often be credited to the strength of the material and the performers. He doesn’t do such a great job of structuring and pacing the film. It sags in places and lacks immediacy – we never get much of a sense of a hotel packed with well over a thousand refugees or a sense of three months passing. It seems harsh to criticise George’s contribution when the film wouldn’t exist without him – he personally put the project together and got it made – but I couldn’t help but wonder what Oliver Stone might have done with this script, in particular the younger Oliver Stone who made Salvador.
George does at least convey the horror of what happened in Rwanda with subtlety and power. For the most part, the genocide is happening in the background, offscreen but it’s always hovering over the characters’ heads and it intrudes in short, horrifying bursts: shaky TV footage of screaming women being butchered; a machete-wielding mob descending on trucks filled with refugees; a road littered with human corpses; a cage full of weeping Tutsi girls being used for recreation by the Hutu militia. The overall effect is powerful and quite distressing at times, as it should be. That said, there’s also a surprising amount of humour, mostly provided by the relentlessly upbeat Paul, whose method of dealing with a lazy employee earns a huge, unexpected belly laugh. It’s gallows humour but it’s welcome and it prevents the film sinking into self-indulgent grimness.
The script is for the most part the film’s strongest asset, even if George and his co-writer Keir Pearson resort a little too often to speech-making. This is not a story that needs to spell out its morals. The departure of the UN troops and the failure of the expected rescue to arrive say all that needs to be said about Western apathy. Having white characters breastbeat about it is hammering the point into the ground and serves only as a distraction.
Another distraction is the use of famous actors in small roles. I’m not talking about Nick Nolte, who has a substantial part and gives a typically forceful performance, but rather Joaquin Phoenix and Jean Reno, who have a few brief scenes as a war correspondent and a hotel executive respectively and contribute little more than their marquee value.
Hotel Rwanda’s real stars are Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo, who were both deservedly Oscar nominated. Cheadle proves to be a lot more comfortable with an African accent than he was with a Cockney one in Ocean’s Eleven. He’s completely convincing as a friendly and slightly ingratiating hotel manager, an African who’s spent much of his life around Europeans and looks up to them, a political realist who will do whatever is necessary to save his guests. Cheadle plays him as a study in courage under fire. This is a man who is not naturally heroic yet somehow summons the resources to control his panic and do what must be done. Sophie Okonedo, the British actress playing Paul’s wife Tatiana is also exceptional. She has much less to work with than Cheadle but she gives an amazingly empathic and credible performance. Hotel Rwanda has made her a star and already landed her a major part in the blockbuster Aeon Flux. Not bad for a Londoner who started her career in Casualty and The Bill.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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