The Rwandan genocide of the 1990’s is one of the most unconscionable humanitarian scandals since WW2. As a reaction to the murder of their president, Hutu extremists cited Tutsi rebels as being responsible and declared war on the entire Tutsi population. Fuelled by fanaticism and fabricated hatred, the Hutu army and militia began the systematic extermination of Tutsis and any moderate Hutu who challenged them. The combined governments of the West, including the UN, watched from a distance as close to a million Rwandans were brutally murdered, many by machete, in less than 100 days.
Director Terry George’s film Hotel Rwanda doesn’t concentrate simply on the horrors of this human disgrace but rather tells the story of a regular man who became a hero without ever firing a shot, or picking up a blade. Paul Rusesabagina was the floor manager at the four star Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali, Rwanda when the Hutu militants began the bloodshed. He himself a Hutu, while his wife and many of his neighbours and employees are Tutsi. Faced with a country plunging into chaos, Paul moves his family and friends into the hotel where UN peacekeepers and the international press have their headquarters. Others hear of this sanctuary and arrive in the hundreds. Soon enough however, the foreign correspondents and UN representatives pull all foreigners out of the country leaving Paul and the refugees to fend for themselves. Surrounded and pressed by the Hutu army, Paul must use his charm and persuasion to save his own life as well as those around him. He saved 1268 people.
Don Cheadle’s performance as Paul Rusesabagina is thoughtful as he shows a man who acts out of necessity instead of idealism. He portrays Paul as a man who wasn’t motivated by politics, but rather simply as a man who found the strength in himself to try and save the lives of those who came to him for help. Blind to the arbitrary lines of race division he turns a four star hotel into a refugee camp for both Hutus and Tutsis, knowing all the while the great risk he was taking. It’s powerful stuff when Paul ultimately realizes that his faith in the compassion of the west is worthless. We feel for him as he comes undone, an honest man betrayed by those he believed to be good.
Sober for once is Nick Nolte as Colonel Oliver of the UN peacekeepers. Based on real life UN General Canadian Romeo Daillaire – (who wrote about his experiences in his book Shake Hands with the Devil) – Nolte is believable as the impotent UN Colonel, an aware and compassionate man bound by orders and frustratingly powerless to change the course of the madness he sees engulfing a country.
Hotel Rwanda has some of that over-scored Hollywood heart tugging – slow-motion shots of children crying, but it’s more than a one dimensional melodrama. With convincing performances the film even ventures to suggest some of the reasons behind the international community’s failure to act, and they are simple. The rest of the world didn’t care enough to get in the middle of it. There were no clear political allies; there weren’t even distinct enemies. They weren’t white. The difference between Hutu and Tutsi is explained as an arbitrary physical distinction imposed by the Belgian Colonialists in order to maintain control. In turn it gave birth to resentment and hate, confusion and murder. This happened only ten years ago. Unfortunately there will probably be a sequel. Peace.