In 1994 members of the Hutu tribe in Rwanda murdered one million of their Tusti neighbors as the United Nations forces within that country, and world public opinion outside, stood by and did nothing. The event is a horrific yet far from isolated case of mass madness and slaughter, often perpetrated with the explicit consent or orders of the State. 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, depicting the courageous acts of one man working to save hundreds of Tutsis, drew wide acclaim.
The similarities between the events in Rwanda and the plight of the Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany evince a chilling and continuing lack of compassion for human life, as well as the effects of abrogating responsibility to governments and so-called world organizations like the UN. Listening to American officials splitting hairs over genocide and acts of genocide sound all too familiar ten years later in a different region of Africa—Darfur.
Don Cheadle won an Oscar nomination for his lead role in Hotel Rwanda, playing Paul Rusesabagina, the personable and well-connected Hutu manager of Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali. We meet Paul on the eve of the start of the massacres. He knows people in high places, providing small favors to army generals and a virulently prejudiced businessman through touches of smooth customer service; he also is building favors for a day when he may need help for his family since his wife is Tutsi.
The Tutsi represent the hated minority among the Hutu majority. Radio broadcasts detail the hatred toward the Tutsi, calling them cockroaches, agitating for their total destruction. When the death of the Rwandan president torpedoes a fragile peace accord, the night of tall trees begins. Like Nazi Germany’s Night of Bloken Glass, Kristallnacht, which began the slaughter of Jews on November 9 and 10, 1938, the violence is swift and brutal. Seeking at first to protect his family, Paul ends up bringing a score of other Tutsis into the hotel. Here he begins a concentrated effort to save as many other Tutsi’s as he can. His only UN assistance comes through a Canadian UN officer played by Nolte, who struggles to bring Paul and other Tutsis to refugee camps and ultimately out of the country.
When the Hutus begin the slaughter, events ramp up quickly. Paul struggles to retain control of the situation. Slightly over 1200 Tutsi refugees shelter inside the hotel. The white guests leave the country, escorted by French and Belgian forces. The hotel becomes a fragile oasis amid the slaughter, though not ignored by the Hutus, who attempt time and again to remove and kill the Tutsi sheltered there. The seige lasts around eleven weeks, though feels much shorter.
Paul’s impecably calm demeanor shatters toward the end, exploding in rage and fear for his family when all seems lost. In one scene Paul returns from buying supplies from a Tutsi-hating businessman and long-time supplier for the hotel. “Take the river road,” he says. “It’s clear.” The gruesome implications of that phrase become clear only when Paul’s driver hits a bump in the fog. As Paul steps out of the car to see if they’ve driven off the road, he literally falls over rows of corpses. The fog lifts, we see an endless row of bodies. The road has indeed been cleared—of Tutsis.
The supporting cast shines. Sophie Okonedo (Dirty Pretty Things) barely hides an undercurrent of fear as Paul’s Tutsi wife. Jean Reno appears in a brief role as the president of Sabine, the company that owns Paul’s hotel; his horror at being told over the phone that guests are being murdered sears the viewer. Joaquin Phoenix gutsy cameraman catches footage of massacres.
Through his actions Paul Rusesabagina joins the ranks of other individuals who refused to turn aside as governing authorities attemped mass murder: Oscar Schindler (Nazi Germany), John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin (Nanking during the Japanese massacres), Raoul Wallenberg (saving several thousand Hungarian Jews from extermination during WWII). In the midst of untold millions state-murdered individuals through the 20th century, the numbers saved are mere grains of sand in the vast deserts of death.
Hotel Rwanda ranks as one of the most intense movies I’ve ever watched. In this movie you will feel grief and rage, yet also hope that even in the midst of madness and good men who do nothing, some people will act against evil.
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