Two views on Hotel Rwanda

with Beth! Orcutt, In Ruckus [Vol. 8, Iss. 4, February 2005]

Two reviews of the movie Hotel Rwanda. One by an enthusiastic yet critical Beth! Orcutt. One by a furious Jelte Harnmeijer. But which is right? Will we ever know? And is there a God, and if so, what does she have to say about Rwanda? Read on for answers to these and other questions.

Review 1: An enthusiastic yet critical Beth! Orcutt

As I stepped past the Amnesty International volunteers crowding the theatre entryway, I wondered to myself how a movie about genocide could possibly be PG-13. Genocide – the crime of all crimes that gets its own pedestal in the halls of International Law for being The Very Worst Thing. How could a movie about annihilation possibly be PG-13?!

Hotel Rwanda captures the unimaginable violence of genocide by telling the true story of a person, an ordinary guy surviving in extraordinary circumstances: Paul Rusesabagina (masterfully played by Don Cheadle), manager of the Hotel Mille Collines in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali. The circumstances – the opening days of the savage killing of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. By giving a human face to the conflict, director Terry George (Some Mother’s Son, In the Name of the Father) harnesses extreme anguish to bring the horrors of genocide close to home.

For the gore-seekers out there, the PG-13 rating might be a letdown. You won’t see images of children hacking their neighbors to death with machetes, or of churches packed full of refugees set ablaze – both common occurrences during the 3-month peak of killing in 1994 that claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsis.  (That’s equivalent to nearly 9000 people killed per day for 3 months in an area the size of Massachusetts.) Instead, you’ll suffer the emotional trauma of Paul’s young son who witnesses the killing of a neighbor, coming home covered in blood. You’ll shrink from streets on fire and catch glimpses
of unbelievable fields of corpses through the fog. You’ll be exasperated as you watch the fear of children and the sorrow of mothers as they wait and tremble and cry, only feet away from their executioners.

Cheadle’s portrayal of Paul is premium, elevating the film from the realm of simple humanitarian propaganda into a higher league that incorporates masterful character development. As the film opens, we see Paul as a polished, level-headed and ambitious businessman, hoping to avoid getting involved with any trouble, which he is sure will soon pass. We watch as Paul smoothes trying situations (for instance, being told to choose which family members live or die) by greasing tracks well-worn with successful business dealing (a.k.a bribery). Yet, as time marches along, we witness both the evolution of Paul, as he begins to realize that he has to protect refugees and victims, and the parallel devolution of Paul, as he breaks down under the crushing reality of the violence that has engulfed his world. In this, an ordinary man who understands the workings of power is simultaneously reduced and transformed by recognizing and reconciling with an evil that annihilates his estimation of civilization.

By focusing on the personal aspects of this atrocious violence, however, the broader background of the reality of the genocide is hastily introduced through cliché, biased, and over-generalized one-liners. The generation of Tutsi versus Hutu ideologies is blamed on Belgian colonizers; France is admonished for supporting Hutu Power and supplying them with weapons. While there is an element of truth in these statements, they are poor simplifications for what is a complex and continuing struggle of identity and power. It is unfortunate that Joaquin Phoenix’s character, a Western news cameraman, was on the receiving end of many of these half-truths; his limited yet poignant appearance is jerked along by others’ awkward blanket statements. Even further, parties in the conflict were painted with stereotypical brushes – the advancing Tutsi army was shown as a glorious saving force against the evil Interahamwe Hutu militias. In reality, each side
trailed along a blurry past.

While some aspects of the conflict are glazed over, the film still manages to expose uncomfortable truths. A defining element that transformed this conflict into genocide was the coordinated and deliberate plan of killing, made possible by propaganda spread via the Hutu Power-sponsored radio. As the film opens, an unseen announcer is heard calling for the eradication of the “Tutsi cockroaches”. When the Hutu president’s plane is shot down (responsibility for this is still questioned), the announcer is back, initiating the call to “cut down the tall trees” (meaning “kill the Tutsis”).

Additionally, the film points an accusatory finger at the inaction of the Western world to save civilian lives. A UN “peace-keeping” General (Nick Nolte) bemoans his orders to not intervene to stop the campaign of violence, claiming that nobody cares what happens in Rwanda because westerners are
racist. The hot-air supporting U.S. and other nations’ offerings of international human rights and humanitarian law is exposed for the sham it is by the display of an unwillingness of State department officials to use the g-word (genocide!) because of the implications: using the g-word would require sending in troops. The director purposefully displayed these sentiments in an effort to open the eyes of people in the West to their guilt in this international affair. There is even a hint of the West’s superficiality when Joaquin Phoenix’s character announces that those who see his footage will say “’Oh, my God, that’s terrible,’ and go on eating their dinners.”

In reality, the movie may not have gone far enough in implicating the complicity of the West. The UN not only prevented soldiers on the ground from intervening, they actually declined advance warning that atrocities were on the horizon by removing troops from Rwanda. Once it became obvious how gruesome the conflict was becoming, international agents finally arrived on the scene to save the day, only to find that they were setting up refugee camps for the same Hutu killers that were now fleeing an advancing Tutsi army, thus exacerbating an already unmanageable situation. These are just a few examples. Of course, Terry George would likely have had to make Hotel Rwanda Parts 1-5 to tell the whole story.

The limitation for expressing the full range of complexity of the Rwanda genocide is apparent, yet it only slightly detracts from the powerful conveyance of the horror it wreaks. As the world each of us knows becomes increasingly global, the only way to connect our common struggle may be by reducing the unknown through sharing our personal experiences. In this light, Hotel Rwanda speaks volumes to how just one person can change the world.

Review 2: A furious Jelte Harnmeijer

Make no mistake. Hotel Rwanda is a movie about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda written and directed by Westerners for Western audiences. Is there an honest effort to portray real Rwandans? Certainly not if we are to judge this by Don Cheadle’s portrayal of the main character Paul Rusesabagina, although he admittedly deserves merit for playing an exceptionally convincing role as ‘the Westernized African Man’. Just look at Paul, the successful business man with his European clothing and efficiency bringing order and the light of reason to the marauding hoards in Africa’s heart of darkness! How his clean and profitable hotel stands out as an ivory lighthouse to helpless drowning Tutsi victims in a sea of Hutu chaos! Ah, there is hope for Africa after all! Disgusting. If you want to understand genocide, this movie does far more harm than good. Decades of complicated ethnic strife, in a highly volatile region of Africa, doubly underwritten in blood-red ink by German and Belgian colonialism, are cleanly distilled with Hollywood-style efficiency into a dualistic battle that pits evil Hutus against a minority of freedom-loving Tutsis. Most unforgivably, the only mention of Rwanda’s colonial past occurs when we learn that the entire distinction between Tutsis and Hutus was arbitrarily fabricated, on the basis of height, by Belgian colonial administrators. I mean, let’s not give the Africans too much credit in assuming that they can draw their own lines without European assistance, eh!? No, let’s rather leave the drawing of lines and the construction of high-voltage barbed-wire fences and enclosures to the European colonists, who have indeed displayed an uncanny historical aptitude for these activities, not in the least by carving up most of Africa into arbitrary regions neatly compatible with European maps. Oh, and hey, if some of these infinitely thin lines end up dissecting the lives, languages, societies and memories of the inhabitants (the ones not carried off to slavery), and some of the resultant boxes morph into air-tight Colosseums for brewing animosity, then… well, that’s why we have the United Nations, isn’t it? Hah, one of the few redeeming qualities of Hotel Rwanda is its’ relatively accurate account of the impotent role the United Nations played during the Rwandan bloodbath.

Hey, guess what director Terry George and film-writer Keir Pearson, hard as it may be to swallow: IT WAS NOT THE ARRIVAL OF YOUR EUROPEAN ANCESTORS THAT STARTED THE CLOCK OF HISTORY TICKING ON AFRICAN SOIL! Hey, card-carrying members of Western ‘civilization’, listen up! Never mind that, well before your priests and warriors commenced their generous quest to spread history across the globe, people that call themselves Hutus were the original inhabitants of modern-day Rwanda. Never mind that peoples labeled by your historians as Cushites arrived from a region your geographers call the southern Ethiopian highlands at a time your chronologers call the 1300s. Never mind that the new arrivals, who call themselves Tutsis today, were different in almost every respect from the resident Bantu Hutus (African is African, right!?). Never mind that Tutsis clearly and unambiguously maintain a systematic social and political distinction to the present day. Never mind that this pre-existing divide was exploited and widened, but certainly not created, to become the chasm into which Hutus and Tutsis alike have thrown one another to their deaths over the last decennia. Ok, maybe you just want to get a feeling for what life in Rwanda is like? Again, this movie does far more harm than good. Only a handful of scenes were shot in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. Most of the movie was filmed in South Africa, with a largely South African cast. The insights we get into a normal day in Rwanda consist predominantly of scenes showing rich Rwandans mingling on Paul’s freshly sprinkled green lawn and in his fancy fortified house. Somewhat more representatively, there is some drive-by footage of South African slums, but I guess the camera crew was too worried about getting their expensive equipment stolen by people forced to live in tin shacks to actually bother depicting what real Rwandans’ everyday lives are like. How warm and fuzzy we are made to feel when, in one of the final scenes (yes I will spoil it for you!), the persecuted Tutsis finally escape out of the hostile clutches of Hutu-controlled territory to arrive behind ‘the front line’, where vigilant Tutsi freedom-fighters are virtuously shouldering the responsibility of the ultimate battle of good versus evil.

I will waste no further words on Hotel Rwanda. Instead, I’m going to continue reading a book I wish I had brought –along with earplugs and a headlamp- when I went to the theatre: “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” by Philip Gourevitch. Read that instead.

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