In the spring of 1994, the central African nation of Rwanda was shattered by a bloody civil war. Over the course of 100 days, more than one million Rwandans were killed, as Hutu extremists murdered their Tutsi neighbors and any other countrymen who stood in their way. The genocide was made even more tragic because most of the world ignored the conflict and refused to get involved.
But in the midst of that horror a heroic figure emerged, a man who did everything in his power to save as many lives as possible.
Hotel Rwanda would be easy to categorize as an African version of Schindler's List, but trying to force this film into a specific category would actually diminish its importance. The fact that something this tragic could have occurred within the past 10 years indicates that our world still has a lot to learn, even from its recent history.
Don Cheadle (also starring these days in Ocean's Twelve) portrays Paul Rusesabagina, manager at the posh Hotel des Mille Collines in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali. While efforts to enact a peaceful settlement are carried on around him, Rusesabagina keeps the people in power happy so that his Belgian-owned establishment is running smoothly.
But his relatively simple existence is shattered when roving bands of Hutu militants begin the murder of the Tutsi minority in response to the death of the republic's Hutu president, assassinated in a plane crash by members of his own party and blamed on the Tutsi.
As we learned earlier in the film, this tension had its origins when Belgium occupied the country and divided the population based on certain physical features. Those who were taller, had paler skin, and thinner noses ("whiter" in their eyes) were the Tutsis; the rest were Hutus. The Tutsis were regarded as the upper class by the Belgians and were treated far better than the Hutus. But when Rwanda gained its independence, Belgium left the Hutus in charge, resulting in a continuing struggle for power.
Rusesabagina is Hutu, but his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) is Tutsi. Arriving home as the fighting erupts, Rusesabagina discovers that his Tutsi neighbors have come seeking protection, since they believe Rusesabagina is the only Hutu they can trust. He bargains with Hutu military personnel in order to bring all of the refugees to the hotel, hoping that United Nations peacekeepers, led by his friend, Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), can arrange for safe passage.
But the situation continues to deteriorate. Even as the Red Cross estimated that hundreds of thousands were being murdered, mostly by machete, the U.N. reduced its peacekeeping force from 2,500 to 270 soldiers. Only hotel guests visiting from other parts of the world are allowed to escape the country, and Rusesabagina is forced to use his cunning and limited resources to turn his hotel into a "four-star" refugee camp. He also uses the communication channels available to him, including a visiting photojournalist (Joaquin Phoenix), to let the world know that his country is in turmoil.
Cheadle, a fine actor who has built his career mostly as a supporting player in films like Ocean's Twelve and Traffic, is outstanding in his first major lead role, one where he is present during practically every important moment in this story.
As Rusesabagina, he deftly plays a man whose courage and compassion directly saves the lives of his family and over 1,200 others, and possibly countless others because he made sure that Rwanda was not ignored. Rusesabagina is shown as a man who somehow maintains his professionalism and composure while his world is collapsing around him, knowing that his negotiations with both friends and foes mean the difference between life and death for many.
But there are also some nice private moments with Tatiana, as they attempt to briefly escape the madeness but also decide some serious family issues, with a nice chemistry between Cheadle and Okonedo. And there is one heart-wrenching moment where the strain of Rusesabagina's situation finally unleashes his emotions.
Nolte is the most recognizable supporting player, and at first his performance seems oddly detached, like he's sleepwalking through the movie. But as the gravity of the conflict in Rwanda comes into clearer focus, you start to see Colonel Oliver as a man who is exasperated and deflated by his efforts to contain a situation that most of the world doesn't even care about. Although Joaquin Phoenix's role is relatively small, it does carry some importance in showing efforts of visiting journalists to get the world's attention. There's also a brief but touching moment where his character is forced to leave behind a Rwanda woman that he befriended because the U.N. peacekeepers have been told only to escort non-natives to the airport.
Director Terry George (who wrote the screenplay for In the Name of the Father) wisely shows restraint in his dramatization of the violence. Although thousands were being slaughtered, many with machetes, only one instance of this brutality, shown from a distance, is enough to present a clear picture. Another harrowing scene where Paul comes across a road littered with bodies is quite effective in showing the extent of this tragedy. There may be times where you wish the movie elaborated more on the history behind Rwanda's unrest, but placing the focus on the impact that one man had on those around him provides plenty of emotional depth.
Hotel Rwanda may benefit from some Oscar buzz for Cheadle and get a wider release than originally planned. In any case, this is a true story well told, and one that is worth seeking out.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- In the midst of the brutal civil war depicted in "Hotel Rwanda," Paul's friend and co-worker Dube asks "Why are people so cruel?" How would you answer him?
- How is it possible that most people didn't know what was happening in Rwanda? What can we do today to be made more aware of potentially tragic situations around the world?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Hotel Rwanda is rated PG-13 "for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language." Some violent content is required to depict the horrible consequences of this civil war, but the film does a good job of dramatizing these events without any particularly graphic sequences. There is one gruesome scene showing dozens of dead bodies, and instances where people are being killed that are shown from a distance. Because of the tense situations, offensive language occasionally appears (about a dozen times).
Photos © Copyright United Artists
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 12/23/04
Terry George's new film Hotel Rwanda may not be a pinnacle of cinematic art—it spells out the details of the Rwandan conflict like a Cliff's Notes version for those viewers who didn't read the papers in 1994, who don't know the difference between the Hutu tribe and the Tutsi tribe. Nevertheless, it's one of the year's most powerful and important films.
Moviegoers and filmmakers have been mulling over the Holocaust for decades, as if the Nazis were the only nightmare in human history, as if such a thing will never happen again if we just see enough movies about it. But genocide continues, with an immediacy that prompts far too many people to just turn the pages of the newspaper and ignore the ugly reality. George is bringing our attention to more recent horrors, and his film is effective enough to increase awareness and inspire action.
Don Cheadle gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel owner who had the courage to shelter an endangered crowd of Tutsi people from the violent, rampaging Hutu barbarians bent on killing them. Like Oskar Schindler, he wasn't a perfect man, but his conscience is this year's best example of Christ-like sacrifice (outside of The Passion of The Christ, of course).
Mark Perry (Christianity Today Movies) says Cheadle is "outstanding" in his role, playing "a man whose courage and compassion directly saves the lives of his family and over 1,200 others." Perry also writes that the film "would be easy to categorize as an African version of Schindler's List, but trying to force this film into a specific category would actually diminish its importance. The fact that something this tragic could have occurred within the past 10 years indicates that our world still has a lot to learn, even from its recent history."
"Cheadle is absolutely magnificent in the role. I could point to a number of scenes that illustrate how passionate, humorous, and deeply felt his performance is," raves Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity). "Terry George's script occasionally pushes our buttons a little too hard, but his film—the release of which coincides with more recent atrocities in Sudan and elsewhere—is a timely reminder that genocide is not merely something that we can look back on decades after the fact, as with so many Holocaust movies, but rather, it is something that confronts us to this day."
"Hotel Rwanda is, at times, hard to watch," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service), "but it is even harder to forget. Well-written, directed and acted, the emotionally riveting, profoundly moral movie deals with an extremely dark chapter of history but is a powerful testament to hope, courage and the nobility of the human spirit."
Raving about Cheadle's work and the filmmaker's courage, mainstream critics are praising this powerful film.from Film Forum, 01/06/05
Mark Perry (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Hotel Rwanda would be easy to categorize as an African version of Schindler's List, but trying to force this film into a specific category would actually diminish its importance. The fact that something this tragic could have occurred within the past 10 years indicates that our world still has a lot to learn, even from its recent history. Director Terry George (who wrote the screenplay for In the Name of the Father) wisely shows restraint in his dramatization of the violence. Although thousands were being slaughtered, many with machetes, only one instance of this brutality, shown from a distance, is enough to present a clear picture."
J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, "It's difficult to imagine any mainstream film showing us the horrors of what happened in Rwanda. That Hotel Rwanda accomplishes this and more is testimony to George's devotion to the project and a deep desire to shake us out of our complacency. While the film doesn't explicitly point to contemporary events in Sudan, the Congo, and Liberia, it hopefully will challenge Western audiences to consider what's happening in Africa and take action."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "We see so many 'heroes' depicted in the movies that when a real one comes along, the accolades usually used to describe them seem insufficient. Don Cheadle does an extraordinary job portraying this ordinary man caught in maelstrom of hate and violence. There are no larger-than-life heroics going on here … just a good man willing to put himself on the line to prevent evil from having free rein. We should be grateful to writer/director Terry George for telling his story so well."from Film Forum, 01/20/05
Kevin Miller (Film Forum) says, "The majority of films are forgettable. A slim minority are entertaining. A precious few are insightful. And then, every so often, a film comes along that is truly significant. Hotel Rwanda is one such film. We need films like Hotel Rwanda to help us fend off indifference and remind us that giving is not a one-time event. If we truly want to make a difference, if we truly want to prevent tragedies like Rwanda from happening again, generosity must become a lifestyle."from Film Forum, 01/27/05
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The violence in the film is horrific, and the film should be rated R due to several instances of strong, bad language and images of death that will be with audiences long after the movie ends—but that's not to suggest that Hotel Rwanda is to be avoided. The genocide in Rwanda left more than 800,000 dead, and Mr. Rusesabagina's story of courage is a convicting yet uplifting entry point for Western audiences into the tragedy."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Without resorting to melodrama for even a second, the result of [the director's] efforts stirs an anger and grief that goes far beyond mere empathy. The horror faced and the terror felt by Tutsi and Hutu innocents are palpaple. And the onscreen plea is crystal: When atrocities are being committed in far-flung, sometimes forgotten regions of the world, the West should not ignore them. By no means is Hotel Rwanda a film children should see. But for the millions of adults and teens who decide to take it in, it's my prayer that they will hold on to those feelings of rage and sorrow much longer than Jack thinks they will."
Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "It's not the performances or the direction that stay with you, but the story itself. Hotel Rwanda is a film that should be watched in Christian faithfulness, and should stir us to show greater kindness and compassion to the least of our brothers and sisters. Though it may have come out in the same year as The Passion of the Christ, this is the one 2004 film that should be required viewing for all Christian moviegoers. And the fact that this movie saw so little support from the Christian media … the same Christian media that were so eager to endorse The Passion … well, you can decide for yourself what that says about our priorities."from Film Forum, 03/03/05
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "A film of great moral and cinematic value, Hotel Rwanda is a sobering reminder of just how important it is for those who have power—whether financial, physical or moral—to intervene, when great evil is taking place. If we do not, then who will? And then who will be there for us, when it is our turn?"from Film Forum, 06/09/05
Dennis Haack (Ransom Fellowship) writes, "Please see Hotel Rwanda. It's a fine example of cinematic art, and the story it tells is one we must be sure not to forget. It is both profoundly sad and deeply redemptive, the story of one man who opened his arms when the world turned its back."
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