Hotel Rwanda Review
Bill Clinton calls the Rwandan genocide the greatest regret of his presidency and it’s difficult to watch this as a Western viewer and not ally your sadness to some degree of shame. This was not genocide but mere “acts of genocide” a US state department spokeswoman infamously claimed at the time, a soundbite incorporated into Hotel Rwanda’s opening scenes. Encapsulating the outrage that underscores the film, a disgusted UN colonel played by Nick Nolte sums up the attitude of his superiors: “We think you’re dirt. You’re not even a nigger. You’re African”.
But while feelings of regret are as inevitable when watching Hotel Rwanda as comparisons to Schindler’s List, writer/director Terry George and co-writer Keir Pearson have largely steered clear of sentimentality. Based on real-life events, Don Cheadle’s Paul Ruseabagina, an hotelier in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is a thriving pragmatist. Like Oskar Schindler, he indulges in bribery and corruption to get on but is a fundamentally decent man. A Hutu, he is married to Tatiana (Sophie Okenedo), a Tutsi. This division is entirely arbitrary he explains to a reporter, imposed by Belgian colonisers on Rwanda in the 1930s, based upon height, skin colour and nose shape. The initially favoured Tutsis came to be resented by the Hutus and when the film begins in 1994, with the murder of Rwanda’s president Juvenal Habyarimana, incited extremists have determined to exterminate the minority Tutsis, chillingly conveyed in radio broadcasts which describe them as “cockroaches”.
When the massacre begins, Paul is in charge of a hotel under UN guard. But this security all but disappears when the Western tourists are evacuated and he is left to almost single-handedly fend for the 1268 Tutsis who have taken refuge under his roof. Against the odds, and with ingenuity and unwavering compassion, he succeeds in keeping the Hutu militia from overrunning the building.
Oscar-nominated, Cheadle and Okonedo are the film’s impressive heart. Despite the madness around them, both are never less than believable. A particularly wrenching moment comes when Paul abandons his family to continue helping the less fortunate, his wife’s subsequent rage at him and his attempts at reconciliation desperately affecting.
Throughout, Paul’s dodging and weaving on behalf of his ‘guests’ completely engrosses. But faced by the mounting bloodshed – almost entirely depicted in aftermath and the survivors’ emotional reaction – his smooth front starts to slip, a failure to fasten his tie and continue projecting professional calm bringing him to breaking point. Weeping agonisingly on the floor, Cheadle’s handling of this scene is masterful and foreshadows the tension gripping the narrative, every struggle to save more lives bringing greater pressure and threatened reprisals.
Regrettably, the script is sometimes heavy-handed and doesn’t match the realism of the performances, but it has a righteous anger that carries it from opening scene to credits. The ending is a little Hollywood, but George can point to its basis in reality and take justifiable pride in making a powerful, respectful reminder of Rwanda’s sorrow.
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