Hotel Rwanda


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.


Back Story


        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.


The Film


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

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.



The Aviator

Director Martin Scorsese marches to his own music. He makes a lot of dark films that don’t net him a lot of money (Bringing Out the Dead, for example.) I disliked Gangs of New York very much because it didn’t look authentic, it was not emotionally convincing and it seemed a big unwieldy violent beast.


But with The Aviator, Scorsese got my attention. The Aviator is a very interesting movie, as clichéd as that sounds. It kept my attention for 169 minutes, and I do not like looonggg movies. When Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells off Senator Brewster (Alan Alda) at a senate hearing about Hughes’ supposed misuse of government funds for aircraft development during World War II, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Brewster was in the pocket of the president of PAN AM (played by Alec Baldwin) and trying to draft an airline monopoly into law. Even though Hughes was suffering from mental illness, he came out of it enough to win the day.


When that huge Hercules aircraft lifts off the ocean at the end of the film, I wanted to cheer again – out of pity for a man who today could have been helped by medication, and out of admiration for a man who did incredible things because he could, against terrible personal odds.


The film begins in the 1920’s when Hughes is into making movies: his was the first multi-million dollar film ever made, Hell’s Angels. He is already exhibiting signs of the obsessive-compulsive-paranoid disorder that will become more dominant as the years pass. He begins a relationship with Katharine Hepburn, amazingly played, accent and all, by the versatile Australian Cate Blanchette. Hughes goes from movies to aircraft, keeping an interest in both, but succeeding with airplanes in a way that can only be called gifted and inspirational.


The movie ends around 1947, in the middle of things; we don’t find out a lot about his early life (other than a hint that his mother may have had mental problems as well and to learn that his parents had died by the time he was in his twenties) or what happened after the Hercules flew. We do get insight into his illness – and his penchant for very young women and movie stars, though he hated the limelight. Hughes was certainly no saint.


In a year when epic films have gone pretty much bust, The Aviator succeeds. For it is an epic biopic. Howard Hughes is too huge a historical, Hollywood and aviation personality to deserve anything less than a film like this.


And did I tell you how good Leo is? I felt that he is totally believable in the role and if he gets some award attention, he deserves it.


Hold on. The Aviator is quite a ride.


(I saw this at The Bridge cinema at the Hughes Center, just off the Howard Hughes Pkwy in Culver City – now I really get the connection. Culver City is where much of the film story took place.)


A woman at Princeton University’s admissions office opens an application and begins to read an essay. A girl’s voice over narrates the story of how she, Cristina, (Shelbie Bruce) and her mother, Flor (Paz Vega), came to the United States from Mexico, and their life once they arrived in Los Angeles.


Flor works two jobs to support Cristina. But when Flor realizes Cristina is growing up and needs her mother’s guidance regarding boys, she decides to search for a job that will pay enough to allow her to do this. She has never learned English because they have lived in the barrio, so she goes for an interview to the Clasky’s home in Beverly Hills with her cousin. Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni) hires Flor immediately, even though she cannot pronounce her name. John Clasky (Adam Sandler) is a world class chef but manages his hours so he can spend time with his family. Deborah’s alcoholic mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman) lives with them. The Clasky’s have two children, the sweet, smart and pudgy Bernice (Sarah Steele) and Georgie (Ian Hymand.)


Deborah is extremely high maintenance and clueless about Mexican culture, though everyone else catches on quickly. She also does not know who she is. As a result, Deborah puts her marriage at risk, and hurts Bernie by her incredibly high standards and what is actually a cruel attitude toward her daughter’s appearance. John is easier going with the children, and Deborah is always upset at him because they are not on “the same page” regarding the children


Things go along pretty well until the Clasky’s decide to rent a house in  Malibu for the summer and insist that Flor move in with them. Now Flor tells them she has a daughter, and cannot. Deborah pretty much gives her an ultimatum, and Flor agrees to let Cristina stay for the summer, too. Cristina is lovely, and Deborah interferes between her and Flor, acting as if Cristina is the daughter she really deserves. Meanwhile, Flor begins to learn English. And things get very complicated between Flor, Cristina, John, Deborah and Bernie. And don’t forget the dog. Never throw a ball and have the dog fetch it…


Spanglish, written and directed by James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets, Jerry McGuire) is not at all what I expected from the trailers. I was surprised by Brooks’ insight into the mother-daughter relationships that he portrays in very believable ways – as well as the immigrant experience from the perspective of newcomers to the United States and the “white” people who employ them.


This is a very nice film about women and the mothers who raise them. It is also about the nature of love as communication.


It is also very rare to successfully have a girl do a voice over narration, but Brooks does it well. Most coming of age movies are all about boys and fathers. Spanglish is thus a refreshing approach.


Perhaps this is Sandler’s transition film into grown-up movies. He is good in the movie.


At the end, Cristina, with much love says something like this: “If you accept me into Princeton, I will be flattered, but it will not define me. It is my mother who has defined me and made me the person I am and this is all I need.”