HOTEL RWANDA directed by Terry George, written by George and Keir Pearson, produced by George and A. Kitman Ho, with Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix. 110 minutes. An MGM-UA release. Opens Friday (January 7). For venues and times, see Movies, page 78. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
As a token for remembering, Hotel Rwanda resonates in all directions. Here's a movie about a genocide that makes a point of showing far less killing than an average summer blockbuster. It commemorates 800,000 murders by boosting one actor from supporting player to leading man. It can't win.
That's what makes it so fascinating. In recounting the 1994 slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Hotel Rwanda needed to make tactical decisions. Most people walking into the cinema won't know a Hutu from a Tutsi (a distinction worked for sharp irony in the film). Most couldn't point to Rwanda on a map.
At least that's the hope. Irish director Terry George aims Hotel Rwanda at an uninformed, unconverted audience, people who just want to see a good story told in ways they understand. So it unfolds in English, it stars American Don Cheadle as a Hutu hotel manager and it pivots on a familiar moral dilemma.
For all those compromises, it mostly works.
Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, the smooth manager of Kigali's best hotel, the Mille Collines. He's an operator, a small man who makes himself big by working every human exchange to his advantage. He slips two bottles of scotch in an army general's briefcase, stockpiling future favour. At home, it's chocolates for the children. In one lovely scene later in the film, he tells his wife (Sophie Okonedo) how he once bribed the minister of health to have her transferred to a job closer to him.
But when the army comes to round up a Tutsi neighbor, he won't help. "He is not family," he says. "Family is all that matters."
He's soon forced to reconsider. Radio propaganda and the death of the president stoke Hutu militias into genocidal rage. The UN - led by Nick Nolte as a General Roméo Dallaire composite - evacuates only westerners. His four-star hotel becomes a refugee camp. And his own wife, a Tutsi, is under constant threat.
By now, all the pieces are in place for one of America's favourite narratives - the selfish man forced to choose selfless heroism. It's the story of King Rat, Casablanca and the example that really matters here, Schindler's List.
That's no accident. Hotel Rwanda won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival and scored three Golden Globe nominations because it found the vocabulary to reach skittish audiences. A previous attempt to fictionalize the Rwanda story, 100 Days, failed to reach beyond a few festivals.
Credit George, who also co-wrote and co-produced (with A. Kitman Ho, Oliver Stone's former producer), with finding the arc that sweeps audiences through a story most would rather ignore. But credit Cheadle with articulating every point along that arc.
In the end, the real Paul Rusesabagina saved 1,268 lives during the Rwandan genocide. The figure is as numbing as the number who died.
In the film, Joaquin Phoenix gets the most chilling line. When Rusesabagina thanks him for shooting video that will prompt the West to intervene, he says, "If people see this footage, they'll say 'Oh my god, that's horrible.' Then they'll go on eating their dinner."
It's the fear that haunts Hotel Rwanda, too. Cheadle and George seek, sometimes desperately, to make this story matter to people who can always count on their next dinner. This is a film looking for a language to translate horror to comfortable spectators.
Six months ago, I sat, comfortably behind glass, in Arusha, Tanzania, watching a case unfold at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
A lawyer from Human Rights Watch faced withering questions to determine whether she could testify as an expert witness on crimes against women. Just once, in describing what happened in 94, she let the word "genocide" slip. The defence pounced.
"That hasn't been proven."
Ten years later, after Bill Clinton's craven apology for not intervening, and in the midst of Darfur, the fact of 800,000 ethnic murders is still contested. That's the quicksand Hotel Rwanda tries to navigate. If it does it by importing the clear moral and narrative lines from earlier, more settled wars, you can understand the strategy.