Hotel Rwanda (2004)

2004, United Artists. Directed by Terry George. Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix.

Decent Films Ratings

Entertainment Value
Value (+4/-4)
? +3
?Teens & Up

External Ratings


Content advisory: Some bloody and menacing scenes and mostly implied genocidal violence; discussion of familial suicide to avoid capture; a brief sexual situation; some obscene and profane language; a brief instance of drug abuse.

A 2004 Top 10 film and a National Catholic Register "Video/DVD Picks" film.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Here, now, is the true face of human barbarity, and the true face of human heroism.

Not in the now-distant mythology of World War II, with the iconic evil of the Nazi regime pitted against the warriors of the Greatest Generation, or even the likes of larger-than-life Oskar Schindler. Here is a horror within living memory of nearly anyone old enough to watch the film, a holocaust without the cover of a massive bureaucratic machine or industrialized, sanitized gas chambers.

This isn’t just professional soldiers obeying inhuman orders, but neighbor rising up against neighbor: ordinary civilians, men not drilled in codes of discipline or institutionally hardened to killing, taking up machetes and butchering women and men and children in the streets, or banding into ad hoc militias and terrorizing neighborhoods in Jeeps, armed with automatic weapons.

And here is an ordinary man: not a soldier, not a man with power or authority, but a modest, unassuming, deferential man, a husband and father of two, who undertakes to save first a handful of his neighbors, then dozens, hundreds, finally over a thousand refugees, bribing, bluffing, stalling, lying, flattering, obstructing — whatever it takes.

Hotel Rwanda provides just enough context on the 1994 Rwandan genocide for the sake of Westerners who don’t remember or never knew whether it was Hutus killing Tutsis or the other way around, let alone why. Without getting mired in politics, it levels a damning indictment at the West’s refusal to intervene, or even to acknowledge that genocide (as opposed to "acts of genocide," the Clinton administration’s approved euphemism) was really taking place. (Conservatives like to emphasize the Clinton administration’s role in leading Western opposition to intervention in Rwanda — but Clinton’s stance on Rwanda was endorsed by Republican leaders at the time, and even by George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential debates.)

But Hotel Rwanda is neither a history lesson nor a moral lecture. Instead, it focuses on the human experience of those living through the crisis: the early denial, the will to disbelieve that things could really get that bad; the misplaced hope in the UN-brokered peace treaty, in the UN itself, and in the world press and pressure of world opinion; the need to retain whatever shreds of normality one can in a rapidly degenerating situation.

Directed by Terry George and cowritten by George and first-time writer Keir Pearson, the film brings home both how an atrocity of this magnitude could happen, and how one man initially concerned only for the safety of his family could come by imperceptible turns to save twelve hundred lives.

The man in question is a hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle in perhaps the year’s best performance), a Hutu whose wife Tatiana (brilliant Sophie Okonedo) is Tutsi. (Rusesabagina, whose story appeared first in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch’s groundbreaking account of the Rwandan genocide, was a consultant on the film, and on the DVD provides a commentary track with George.)

As manager of the Mille Collines hotel, Paul’s job involves managing crises, maintaining a sense of order and decorum, and above all staying on good terms with everyone. These skills serve him well in the escalating crisis as he struggles to keep the hotel running, maintain discipline among the staff, and placate the military into ignoring and when necessary even protecting the growing number of Tutsi refugees Paul winds up sheltering at the hotel.

The depiction of the ethnic cleansers, though devoid of morally mitigating behavior, is not without nuance and insight. A Hutu killer puts a gun to Paul’s head and orders him to shoot his Tutsi family and neighbors; but self-interest runs deeper in him than ethnic cleansing, and he agrees to release his prisoners for a bribe (and keeps his word, though he could have taken the payoff and killed them anyway). Later, a corrupt general chats idly with Paul about golf in Scotland while the latter’s family is in mortal danger — a moment of oblivious non sequitur banality reminiscent the riddle-obsessed German doctor in Life is Beautiful pleading for Guido’s help in the concentration camp.

Meanwhile, a hamstrung UN peacekeeping force (personified by Nick Nolte) and the Western media stand impotently by, bearing horrified witness. Sixty years after the end of World War II, but only ten years after the events it depicts, Hotel Rwanda is a shattering reminder that genocide — and the world community’s failure to prevent it — isn’t a mere legacy of the past, but an ongoing reality.

Tags: History, Drama, War

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Mail: Re: Hotel Rwanda

I was just wondering what you thought of the scene in Hotel Rwanda where Paul asks his wife Tatiana to “take the kids up to the top of the hotel and jump” if they find themselves in a situation where they cannot escape from the Hutu extremists. Although that never ended up happening in the film, I found that scene to be very problematic and kind of annoying in a film that otherwise displays Christ-like courage under barbaric circumstances.

While it’s true that Catholic moral theology holds that that suicide is always morally wrong, even in the face of certain and horrific death, I wouldn’t judge either Paul or the film too harshly. Given the circumstances, Paul’s moral calculus is at least understandable, if not acceptable. It is a realistic portrait of what many sincere people would conclude is a morally valid option under such circumstances. To face being hacked to bits by machete, to say nothing of watching your children facing the same fate, is more than many of even the bravest of us could face without extraordinary supernatural graces. We don’t have to agree with Paul’s decision to sympathize with a husband and father trying to make the best decisions he can under dreadful duress.

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Mail: Re: Hotel Rwanda, Children of Men

I’m the same writer who was troubled about the scene from Hotel Rwanda regarding Paul’s discussion with his wife. I was completely satisfied with your response to the question I asked and now find I can watch the film without worrying. I noticed in your review of the film Children of Men you objected to the euthanasia scene presented as a “loving and merciful choice.” Would you be able to explain the difference between these two scenes, and why you consider one characters moral calculus to be understandable, if not acceptable, while the other is gravely objectionable?

Good question. Admittedly, the difference between the two may be a fuzzy one, not a hard, clear moral distinction.

That said, in my judgment Children of Men romanticizes and sentimentalizes the euthanizing of a mentally incapacitated loved one in a way that Hotel Rwanda does not similarly endorse the proposal of suicidal acts as a desperate escape from extreme duress.

Paul’s proposal in Hotel Rwanda that his family leap from the roof rather than fall into the hands of raping, genocidal assailants is meant to make us shudder — not necessarily because we disagree with his judgment, but because of the magnitude of the two great evils he is trying to choose between. Jasper in Children of Men tenderly poisoning his wife to the sad, sweet strains of Franco Battiato’s cover of “Ruby Tuesday” is meant to break our hearts, but I think the film asks the audience to approve this concrete, onscreen act in a way that Hotel Rwanda doesn’t ask us to approve Paul’s unrealized contingency plan.

Note that while Jasper kills his wife only as government forces close in and he expects to die covering for the escaping heroes, there is no reason to think that heinous crimes would then have been committed against his catatonic wife, as would have been committed against Paul’s family. Perhaps she would merely have been institutionalized, or perhaps she would have been euthanized by the government. Either way, it’s not clear that he is motivated by a desire to save her from a “fate worse than death.” Perhaps he simply feels that there is no point in her going on after he is dead, or that if she is going to die anyway it should be by his hand.

It may also be worth noting that the scene in Hotel Rwanda merely reflects the actual choices of real people (I checked), rather than any particular bias or interest of the filmmakers. By contrast, the scene in Children of Men was added to P. D. James’ fictional story by the filmmakers, so it seems to reflect something that the filmmakers specifically wanted to say. This redactional (editorial) consideration doesn’t directly affect the narrative significance of either scene, but it does say something about the filmmakers’ motivations, which goes to the larger critical meaning of the scenes.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about the roof-jumping business, and on reflection I’m not sure that a case couldn’t be made from the moral principle of double effect that to jump off a roof to escape murderous attackers may actually be morally justifiable. While it would not be morally licit to seek death as a means of preventing oneself from being able to suffer at the hands of others, it could be argued that the purpose of leaping off the roof is not to die, either as a means or as an end, but rather to place oneself (physically, not existentially) beyond the grasp of the assailants on the roof. That leaping off the roof results in falling to one’s death would be a foreseen but unwilled consequence of the physical leap away from one’s assailants.

Even if one doesn’t accept this line of thought, the earlier considerations still seem to me to make the Children of Men scene problematic in a way that the Hotel Rwanda scene isn’t. Incidentally, this isn’t to say that I don’t understand Jasper’s decision and have human sympathy for him. I even sympathize with Clint Eastwood’s character’s climactic decision in Million Dollar Baby. Nevertheless, I deplore the way that film manipulates events and audience sympathies in order to elicit approval for a reprehensible decision.

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Review: Sometimes in April (2005)

B+ | ***½ | +2| Teens & Up*

Compared to the theatrically released Hotel Rwanda, Sometimes in April is grimmer, less focused, and more uncompromising. Both films focus on a connected, successful Hutu family man with a Tutsi wife and a number of children, but this man’s story, in which the past of 1994 and the present are intercut, is more ambiguous and tragic.

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Review: Beyond the Gates (2005)

B | **½ | +2| Teens & Up

Beyond the Gates is most worth seeing for its uncompromising portrait of a more representative episode in the Rwandan genocide than the events depicted in Hotel Rwanda. At the same time, it offers little insight into the Hutu or Tutsi experience.

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