The gates of hell opened on April 6, 1994, in Kigali, the African capital city of Rwanda, and 100 days or so later, when those gates closed, nearly 1 million Rwandans were dead. It was the speediest genocide in recorded history, and during that time, the United Nations, which had 2,700 peacekeepers in place, reduced its force to 270. That's for the entire country. The United States, meanwhile, followed the lead of the rest of the world and turned a blind eye. After those 100 days, Rwanda, a nation only about the size of Massachusetts, lost 10 percent of its population.
Preferred killing method?
To understand the evil that men do, a good place to start is Philip Gourevitch's 1998 literary retelling of this atrocity, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.
At its best, Hotel Rwanda, the new film from Terry George, an Irish screenwriter-director schooled in earnest tales of injustice, shares Gourevitch's outrage. It puts us in the skins of people who are cut off from the rest of the universe, not only by telephone - but cut from the conscience of the rest of the world. As much as they fear the roving packs of young men with knives and AK-47s, who can be heard getting closer, they fear the silence of indifference more.
What this movie excels in is not storytelling or filmmaking - neither of which has much style - but empathy, however late it arrived. As the movie wears on, you detect the place of the Rwandan people on the nightly news falling back and back in importance until they only get a head shaking; Joaquin Phoenix has a small role as a news cameraman who makes it plain: When Americans see his footage, "They'll say 'Oh, that's horrible' and go back to dinner."
Nick Nolte, also in a small role as a UN colonel, is even more direct: "You should spit in my face," he tells a Rwandan. "We think you're dirt. The West, the superpowers ... you're dirt to us."
Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of a how more than 1,200 Rwandans avoided an untimely fate, regardless. That is thanks to Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the four-star Hotel des Mille Collines, trained by his Belgian employers to have the skills of a seasoned politician. He is the man you go to when you need skids greased. Journalists traveling in foreign lands call this kind of guy "a fixer" - a go-between who helps them work with a bureaucracy, an unfailingly polite pragmatist who knows not only when to grant favors but when to call them in.
He did, on the other hand, lack one characteristic of a seasoned politician: Rusesabagina (who is a real man, and has since moved to Belgium) did not hesitate when the killing started, and he didn't pause for pity or speechifying when the scope of the genocide became apparent. He was too busy worrying about Rwandans who were still living.
Played by Don Cheadle, who gives him the quiet, patient manner of a delegate, Rusesabagina is a smart place to begin telling this story - as good a place as any. He's firmly in the middle of the inspirational road, an easily accessible vehicle for telling the story of an event few outsiders can even place on a map. Paul is a member of the Hutu tribe, and yet is married to a Tutsi.
When the killing starts, it's the Hutu extremists who assassinate the country's dictator, and seize the Rwandan radio stations, and begin broadcasting a chilling message to their sympathizers:
Squash the Tutsi cockroaches.
Rusesabagina, who is used to procuring lobster for European elites and packing the suitcases of colonels with fine scotch, finds his world shrinking, and refugees knocking at the door of his hotel. They became his "guests," a dozen or more to a suite, lending a dark irony to the "Do Not Disturb" signs hanging on the door knobs of their rooms. When flattery doesn't keep the roving bands of murderers from knocking, he tries bribery. When bribery fails, he falls back on blackmail. In Hollywood shorthand, there's a name for this: Schindler's List in Africa.
And I'm not being glib.
One way we make unimaginable horrors more palpable for consumption is focusing on an individual act of bravery. There's also a practical reason: Just as Steven Spielberg couldn't address the enormity of the Holocaust in one movie, no sane filmmaker would want to presume that the complexity and the sheer terror of the Rwandan genocide fits a couple of hours.
The comparison ends there.
Schindler's List, a work made by a filmmaker at the top of his game, didn't offer the audience any easy outs. The brutality was in the air, in every corner, not necessarily seen, but always felt.
Yet in Hotel Rwanda, George not only doesn't want to burden us with the details of the conflict, he wants to shield our eyes from the horror. We don't necessarily need to see gore to appreciate the scope of a genocide. But it's hard not to feel removed from the killings, which happen off in the distance, and in a blur as the camera glides by the side of the road, and rob it of immediacy.
Only once do we take a kick in the stomach: Cheadle is driving back to the hotel at dawn on a mist-shrouded road, and the truck begins to lurch and rumble and slowly he realizes he is driving over a stretch of highway littered with bodies. I understand that this isn't meant to be a comprehensive take. Still, the film is maddening because as well-intentioned as it is, a bolder film would be seen by more people. And I think, in the end, that's what George wanted: To shame us into understanding - and into appreciating Rusesabagina.
We do. But if we don't necessarily understand the conflict any more coming out than we did going in, that's a problem. And especially considering how pointed George gets in mentioning the situation is not black and white enough for the average citizen watching from his couch to sort out. Yet it's not a bullying picture but more of a timid muckraker.
To say Hotel Rwanda never feels like more than a heartfelt TV movie should not take away from the importance of its subject. The fear, I think, is filmmakers who want you to feel obligated, because when we feel obligated about conscious-raising art, the response is always predictable: "Oh, how horrible," and then we go back to dinner.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org