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MGM/United Artists

Official Site

Director: Terry George

Producers: Terry George, A. Kitman Ho

Written by: Keir Pearson & Terry George

Cast: Don Cheadle, Paul Rusesabagina, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, David O’Hara, Cara Seymour, Fana Mokoena, Hakeem Kae-Kazim ,Tony Kgoroge Mosa Kaiser


Sometimes we’re a beat-down group of people: terrorists, Internet broadcasts of beheadings, and senseless roadside bombings have become staples of the news these days. No wonder we all love a feel-good story that affirms the goodness of humankind. And it’s all the better when that story is based on a true event. So how could anyone not like director Terry George’s gripping film based on a real-life story of hotel manager who managed to save hundreds of lives during the Rwandan genocide of 1994? The winning formula is already there from the git-go, but that said, Hotel Rwanda as a finished product is a mighty engaging piece of filmmaking.

Internal political strife in some far-away country can sometimes be too complicated to follow but here the background information is cleanly laid out. The tragic legacy of Rwanda first began with the arrival of the Belgians in 19th century. After decades of enslaving, mutilating, and murdering the local population when they failed to meet high work quotas for rubber extraction, an international outcry at last ensued. The retreating Belgian administrators turned management of the colony over to Tutsis, a tribal group who tended to be fair-skinned, successful property owners. The darker-skinned Hutu workers, who made up the bulk of the toiling population and had suffered greatly at the hands of the Belgians, were once again shut out of politics and economic opportunity. The situation remained static until the mid-1980s, when at long last the Hutus were able to win the national presidency. Though the Hutu president and his administration faced momentous difficulties, it was hoped stability in the region could at last be achieved. This was not to be the case. The president’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, in all likelihood by radical Tutsi extremists and his death initiated the rallying cry for revenge. The Hutus created vigilante militias who swept across the countryside. They were not interested in finding those responsible or executing Tutsi rebels. Years of oppression and anger that had been building up for decades gave way, and all Tutsi men, women, and children were targeted. When it was all over, approximately 960,000 people were dead.

George’s story documents how Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle) turned the prestigious hotel where he worked into a refugee camp. With its international connections and diplomatic clientele, the Hutu were reluctant to enter the hotel to remove Tutsis. Recognizing the hotel could serve as a temporary zone of safety, Rusesabagina was able to take in hundreds of Tutsis and keep them safe until they could be moved to another location.

At the risk of sounding utterly cliché it nevertheless has to be said that Don Cheadle’s performance as the beleaguered hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina is truly masterful. He so completely embodies his character with intensity and emotion that he is frankly unrecognizable from any past performance. If he doesn’t get a nomination of any sort, it will only be further validation of the increasing insignificance of the whole Oscar spectacle. Foreign actresses don’t tend to get much recognition at all near Oscar season, but Sophie Okonedo also does some powerful acting. As Paul’s wife, she has to do it all—cower, shriek, sob—and she does it convincingly. She also acts her way through what has to be a record-breaking number of near-death scenarios at the hands of armed Hutu soldiers. Far less impressive though, is Nick Nolte. These days he can only play one flavor, and that flavor is gruff. Once again he plays the one-dimensional role as UN Colonial Oliver, who wants to be John Wayne but is denied the authority to intervene.

The downside to Hotel Rwanda is that, in many ways, it is sometimes a heavy knock-off of both The Killing Fields, a horrific retelling of the genocide in Cambodia in the mid-1970s and, more recently, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the story of Jews protected from the Nazis by a factory owner. In one instance after the other, the comparisons are obvious. There is the usual cast of characters: the rescuing savior with a heart of gold who musters strength from within to face the unimaginable; the stubborn foreign journalist who risks life and limb to get the story out, in the end to an indifferent western media. And the comparison couldn’t be any more obvious than in one scene in particular, when Rusesabagina is driving his car around in the fog and pulls over to the side of the road. He opens the door and almost falls out onto piles of bodies discarded on the side of the road. Overwhelmed with horror, he struggles with great effort to get back in the car. Sorry, but seen it already when Dith Pran escapes from the Khmer Rouge and stumbles into an open field that is littered with thousands of skulls and bones.

Of course all of this borrowing and copying can be forgiven, because there is probably only so much formula involved in a “genocide” film. It is actually more disturbing to think these types of films could develop into a shelf of their own to at the local video store. I can almost hear it now: “Excuse me, but do you have a genocide section? I’m looking for one in particular.” Perhaps the larger issue is why we have yet again another film documenting the wholesale massacre of any given civilian population while the western world sits quietly on its hands? We keep vowing it will never happen again, but there never seems to be a shortage of material for filmmakers.

—Nancy Semin

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