Thu January 13, 2005
Hotel Rwanda is at its best with the little acts that form the mosaic of survival.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
The tsunami that devastated Asia, killing over 150,000 people, was as horrific an act of nature as could be imagined. Yet, in the 100-day bloodbath in 1994 Rwanda (on the borders of Tanzania, Uganda, and the Congo), ruling Hutus exterminated one million of their enemy, the Tutsis.
In Hotel Rwanda, Director Terry George meticulously establishes his angle of vision that the world abandoned the suffering Africans. One character ironically says about a film crew's discovery, "If people see this footage, they'll go, 'Oh my God! That's horrible!' then go on eating their dinner."
The success of the film is in abandoning the usual mechanics of movie mayhem and blood (Saving Private Ryan always comes to mind) to concentrate on the Schindler-like heroics of a hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who risks himself and his family for the survival of 1200 Africans in his hotel during the genocide.
George's forgoing the visual realism for considerations of moral and political murder is a good one: We are allowed without distraction of realism to consider how things could have been different if the French had not left control to the minority Hutus and if the participants had not been black, an insight about racism shared by the film and scholars to this day. At the least it is possible to appreciate the irony of the U.S. committing many soldiers and dollars to Iraq for arguable reasons while an entire African tribe was almost exterminated with little intervention. As the U.N.'s Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte) says, "We're here as peace keepers, not peace makers."
Hotel Rwanda is at its best with the little acts that form the mosaic of survival such as Paul's daily bribing a general in order to get food and survival for the hotel residents and his family, just generally cashing in on his social capital minute-by-minute. Paul's clean shirts and ties, together with the crisp lighting and colors of Robert Fraisse's cinematography, help highlight the difference between our detached, academic discussions about these awful events and the bloody business they really are. Paul can barely dress himself after seeing carnage in the countryside.
Joseph Conrad at the turn of the 20th century understood white "progress" in Africa. His "Heart of Darkness" describes the "senseless" shelling of gunboats into the blank jungle, the detachment of clerks from atrocities, and the only words now capable of describing the genocide depicted in Hotel Rwanda: "The horror! The horror!"
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.