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.
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.
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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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.
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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?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.