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No Safe Haven

 

Hotel Rwanda

Terry George, South Africa / USA, 2004

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: January 17, 2005

By Laurence Station

"The deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group." That is Merriam-Webster's definition of genocide. What happened in the African nation of Rwanda in 1994 -- when the Hutu militia killed 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days -- is accelerated genocide of staggering proportions. The fact that the massacre was allowed to spread like wildfire, due to the inaction of the rest of the world, only magnifies the cruel and tragic loss.

Terry George's Hotel Rwanda attempts to articulate the insanity that gripped Rwanda from early April through mid-July of that year via the story of Paul Rusesabagina. Rusesabagina (played here with tremendous compassion and steady resolve by Don Cheadle) is a practical, eager-to-please manager for an upscale Belgian hotel who understands that to get what he needs, bribes must be paid and gifts shrewdly distributed. Rusesabagina is a Hutu (a typically darker-skinned, shorter Rwandan), married to a Tutsi (a typically lighter toned, taller Rwandan, once favored by the Belgian colonists). Obviously, Rusesabagina coexists (as undoubtedly many of his countrymen did) in both ethnic worlds. He's aware of rising tensions (Tutsi rebels are gaining ground on the controlling Hutus) but does his best to ignore the political brushfires and focus on his job at the hotel.

And then the killings start. The Hutus set about exterminating the "cockroaches," as they derisively refer to the Tutsis, and house-by-house assaults begin. Rusesabagina, realizing the danger his wife (Sophie Okonedo, in a wonderfully heartfelt performance) and children are in, manages to bribe militants for their safe passage (along with a small group of other Tutsis from his neighborhood) to the presumably secure grounds of the foreign-owned hotel. Soon, the flood of refuges overwhelms the establishment, and all of the foreigners flee the war-torn nation.

Rusesabagina is convinced the world will react when news of the mass murders is reported. A cynical photojournalist (Joaquin Phoenix) bitterly tells him that most people will simply comment on how horrible it is and then return to eating their dinner. An embittered, hands-tied U.N. Colonel (Nick Nolte) puts it more bluntly, telling Rusesabagina: "You're not even a nigger. You're African."

Indeed, the deeply pessimistic message here is not that genocide took place; it's that Rwanda had nothing to bribe the wealthy nations of the world to come to its aide. (Too bad the slaughter wasn't occurring above rich oil deposits.) Near the end of the film, even the ever-resourceful Rusesabagina has run out of things to entice the military with, hoping for some modicum of protection against the rampaging militia.

The easy tagline for Hotel Rwanda is to call it Schindler's List in Africa (ironic, really, considering Steven Spielberg's much-lauded film initially premiered mere months before the carnage took place -- not that any screens in the capital city of Kigali were showing it at the time). Oskar Schindler didn't have as personal a stake in the survival of a particular ethnic group as Rusesabagina did, however. Rusesabagina is credited with saving nearly as many lives as Schindler's 1,300, but the Hutu was no war profiteer. He was merely a man trying to get his immediate family and those who had taken shelter in his hotel to safety. The primary issue wasn't about being captured and sent to a concentration camp (unquestionably a horrendous fate); it was about avoiding being immediately shot or hacked to death by a machete.

Director George does an excellent job conveying this near-unbearable tension, though there are moments where levity seems artificially crammed into the story to give the audience a breather (as when Rusesabagina frantically searches for his family and a subsequent joke is made about a defensively held showerhead). Otherwise, the direction and photography are professional, if uninspired. Hotel Rwanda has neither a jittery documentary style nor a personally stamped artistic grain. It's featureless and functional, which might mean George didn't want to detract from the focal point of his story. But it certainly dampens the film's intrinsic artistic merit.

That being said, Hotel Rwanda is an undeniably powerful film. It's impossible to watch this story and not feel something (and those who don't might want to be checked for possible sociopathic tendencies). And even though Paul Rusesabagina's experience with genocide might by the most palatable version of the story for foreign spectators, it still resonates, simply because of the terrible cost racial intolerance inflicted on nearly a million of his fellow Rwandans.

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