Hotel Rwanda: Bearing Witness
On December 22, Hotel Rwanda, Golden Globe
nominee for Best Motion Picture – Drama, will open in Los Angeles and New York. Directed by Terry George, Hotel Rwanda is the story of Paul Rusesabagina who can rightly be called Rwanda’s Oskar Schindler. With the support of his wife, his business acumen and humble humanity, Paul Rusesabagina was responsible for saving the lives of more than 1,200 Rwandan people during the genocide of 1994.
About six hundred years ago the Tutsi people came to live among the Hutu people in the African country now known as Rwanda. It is a beautiful land, now bound by the Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. The people raised herds, farmed and mined to sustain themselves. Although more numerous than the Hutu, over time the Tutsi subjugated the Hutu people by forming a controlling monarchy. This resulted in continual tension between the two ethnic groups.
Beginning in 1894 the German and then Belgian occupation kept the Tutsi in power. The1926 Belgian mandate that the people carry identity cards stating their ethnicity only made matters worse. The increased conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu eventually erupted into civil war in 1990, with extremist Hutu killing thousands of Tutsi. In 1993 a U.N. supported peace accord was signed by the Hutu President Habyarimana but he did not implement it. Finally, on April 6, 1994, extremist Hutu caused a plane crash that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. The very night of President Habyarimana’s death marked the beginning of the systematic killing of the Tutsi people as well as moderate Hutu throughout the country – a genocide the governments of the world chose to ignore
Hotel Rwanda: 100 Days in 1994
In the capital city of Kigali, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) goes about his duties as the manager of the fashionable Milles Collines Hotel. He oversees everything. He moves around the city in the hotel van to pick up food and supplies. He trades favors with business owners, each to provide the other with things they don’t have. Going from place to place he talks to his driver Thomas about the importance of “style” in one’s professional life. Paul deftly avoids political conversations with his business associates. At one warehouse a wooden crate falls open and machetes fall out. Paul and Thomas quickly leave.
Back at the hotel Paul confidently encourages the staff and greets guests. At day’s end Paul goes home to his beautiful wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and their children. But there is a disturbance in the neighborhood caused by the Hutu militia. In the next few days the political storm gathers and their relatives and mostly Tutsi neighbors instinctively take refuge with Paul, a Hutu and Tatiana, a Tutsi. Because of his prestigious job at the hotel and his personal integrity, the neighbors trust him.
A news crew (David O’Hara and Joaquin Phoenix) arrives from Europe because they have received word that the ethnic tension in Rwanda is exploding and thousands of Tutsi are being murdered. Hotel guests start to panic because the airport has been closed. Paul’s friend from U.N., Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte) tells Paul he is frustrated because the U.N. has withdrawn most of its peacekeeping troops, leaving only 270 out of 2,500. They cannot do anything but watch the massacre. Within a few days, however, Oliver manages to evacuate the guests to the airport. Things have become too dangerous for the news crew as well, and they leave with startling footage.
The situation in Paul’s neighborhood deteriorates. After his son witnesses the murder of a friend one night, Paul decides to evacuate everyone who has taken refuge in his home to the hotel. Soon, a Red Cross worker arrives at the hotel with some orphans, followed by a priest, local nuns with more children. Paul negotiates with his friends, now in the military and police, calling in favors, to keep the people safe and fed. Paul calls the hotel’s main office in Brussels to ask the company contact the Belgian government for immediate assistance but the government refuses to intervene in any way. When travel visas come through for many of the people in the hotel who have friends and family in other countries, Paul, Tatiana and their children board the trucks with them. At the last minute though, Paul decides to stay to care for those who remain behind yelling out to Tatiana, “I cannot leave these people to die,”
Tatiana is wild with anger at Paul for not coming with them, but before the trucks can get out of the city, they are stopped and the people terrorized by the militia. The U.N. escort guides them back to the hotel and Paul and Tatiana are reunited. Meanwhile rumors of atrocities abound, and Paul and Tatiana make plans in case the inconceivable happens and the Hutu militia attacks.
1,268 men, women and children hunker down in the hotel amidst great danger to wait for help from the outside world that never comes. All the while, Paul is the exemplary host to his guests at the Milles Collines Hotel.
Hotel Rwanda is a based on a true story and historical events about a time when the world closed its eyes to great human need. It is a visceral film that bears witness to one of Africa’s greatest tragedies through the eyes and experience of one man and his family. Don Cheadle is remarkable as the ordinary, likeable, calm and suave hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina. Cheadle claims the role with such dignity and credibility that we know he is the man who could save a thousand lives. Sophie Okonedo (Dirty Pretty Things) is exceptionally well cast as the wife. Her anguish when Paul proposes what she should do in the eventof Hutu attack is heart wrenching and real. Hotel Rwanda, for its stark, understated style, story and exceptional acting, has great Oscar potential. Don Cheadle is amazing.
Hotel Rwanda is familiar social justice territory for director/co-writer Terry George whose previous credits include In the Name of the Father and Some Mother’s Son about the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Amnesty International’s Artists for Amnesty www.amnestyusa.org/artistsforamnesty.com)
spokesperson Angelina Jolie introduced the film with Harrison Ford at the premiere screening in Los Angeles at the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on December 2. She said that Hotel Rwanda brings the audience into Kigali ten years ago when the world chose to ignore the mass killings, much the same way as the ongoing emergency crisis in Darfour, Sudan. It took 100 days for the world to respond to Rwanda, but the situation of starvation, thirst, and extreme human rights violations in Darfour, Sudan, is now in its 21st month and the world continues to do nothing.
“This movie is a message,” said Paul Rusesabagina who was present at the screening of Hotel Rwanda with his wife, Tatiana. “My dream and my wish is that you will be messengers who will tell other people about what you have seen. The tragedy in Rwanda was only recognized as genocide after the fact. It is time that Africa be considered as a continent, and that its people be recognized as human beings and given the same human rights as people all over the world.”
Some movies inform, some movies entertain and some movies bear witness to the human face of God in the midst of tragedy. Hotel Rwanda is such a film.