Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Title:Hotel Rwanda
Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Jean Reno
Director: Terry George

Paul Rusesabagina worked in a prestigious hotel in Rwanda, a hotel owned by a Belgian company and filled with rich westerners. With the events of the genocide in 1994, Paul Rusesabagina found himself in difficult circumstances – the film Hotel Rwanda is based on those events and his part in them.

There has been trouble in Rwanda for sometime, stemming back to the days when it was a Belgian colony. At that time the Belgians arbitrarily split the people into two groups – the Tutsi and Hutu – they elevated the Tutsi to second to the Belgians, making the Hutus the lower class. However, when Rwanda became an independent country the Hutus were in power. At the time of the troubles, a civil war was being fought, Tutsi rebels fighting against the Hutu government. But the real problems started with the rise of vigilante street gangs, whipping up hatred against the Tutsi people, regardless of whether they were connected with the rebel forces or not.

In amongst this the UN were negotiating a peace deal, and Paul works all sides, friends with UN representatives, with leading Hutu merchants, and prominent army leaders. Through all of this he is convinced that things will settle down, everything will be okay – peace has been negotiated by the west, things have been agreed upon, end of story. However these street gangs are biding their time - within hours of the peace deal being signed, the country’s president has been murdered and the massacre of Tutsis has started.

As a Hutu himself, Paul is under pressure to join the war against the Tutsi. But he is married to a Tutsi woman, and some of his best friends and work colleagues are Tutsi. How can he possibly get involved in the killing of Tutsi? So he tries to laugh the whole thing off, it’ll never come to anything, it is stupid. But of course it isn’t long before he is forced to take a stand to save his family. And that is the first step in him being branded a race traitor as he desperately tries to save as many lives as he possibly can.

As such, when he is left in charge of the hotel as the western managers abandon the country, he fills it with refugees and orphans. Who mix in with the remaining western tourists and media representatives – all of whom wait desperately for UN forces to arrive and end the troubles. Which is something that informs the character of Paul throughout – the idea of hope – the constant conviction he has that while things are a little out of control at the moment, they will be sorted out soon. However this is not to be, and while European troops arrive, they only stay long enough to evacuate the Europeans, leaving the Africans to die.

The approach to Hotel Rwanda as a narrative recollecting a genocide is curious. In the UK it has been given a 12A certificate, which means that it is open to anyone over the age of 12 or for those accompanied by a parent. To this end the violence of events is considerably toned down, left to the filmmaker’s ability to suggest and imply. For some the idea of depicting genocide without showing brutal violence doesn’t make a lot of sense. But for many, myself included, Hotel Rwanda very much achieves what it sets out to achieve in terms of presenting events in an approachable and comprehensible fashion.

One of the most curious, and central, parts of the film is the hotel at the core of the story. The hotel becomes this odd island, barely defended by a couple of UN peacekeepers, repelling attack through its very status as an edifice of western currency. This creates a certain calm and detachment, where the people that are hiding in the safety of the hotel’s grounds have that conviction that things will be okay. This in some ways is crucial to the films impact, because on a handful of occasions Paul has to make a trip outside his island of calm. It is then that the brutal reality becomes clear, buildings are burning, dead bodies lie everywhere – the impact and extent of the massacre has all the more impact, because it crashes through the walls of denial.

Don Cheadle has played a number of roles in big Hollywood films over the last few years. But Hotel Rwanda thrusts him to the fore, and the films success is his success, especially as pretty much all these events are seen through his eyes and the film stands or falls off the back of his reactions and involvement. The casting of his wife is an interesting one; a relatively unknown actress on the world stage Sophie Okonedo has done some TV work in the UK, and a little film work with the likes of Dirty Pretty Things. Her role provides her with less scope than Cheadle, given that it tends more towards the horrified and hysterical, but she undoubtedly gives a strong performance.

There are a handful of westerners that crop up through the film, which in various ways define the role of the rest of the world while these events unfold. Nick Nolte plays a Canadian soldier, the head of the peacekeeping force - while he has had a hit and miss career he exudes guilt and disappointment as a helpless man who is entirely conscious of how little he can do for the people he is supposed to be protecting. Joaquin Phoenix crops up in a secondary role, as a heavily bearded cameraman, who dares to leave the hotel and capture footage of the massacre. Then there is French actor Jean Reno who is the head of the organisation that owns the hotel, a man reacting from a great distance and not really sure what is going on in his Rwandan property. All representing people who would kind of like to do something, but can’t.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but coming out of the busy Saturday night screening of Hotel Rwanda there seemed to be an unusual hush amongst the people spilling out into the cinema’s corridors. Hotel Rwanda is a film about small hopes against all odds, about the people who will struggle to make the difference regardless of how hopeless things may get. Hotel Rwanda is a sold piece of cinema, with some great performances, that covers difficult material in a strong fashion.

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