Hotel Rwanda
Directed by Kevin George
Screenplay by George and Kier Pearson


The new film from Irish writer/director Kevin George treats a very difficult subject - the Rwandan genocide - with a combination of forthrightness and restraint that makes a vigorous and gripping - if frequently chilling - narrative. Together with co-screenwriter Kier Pearson he has put together a project that brings this dark chapter in recent history to light in a way that is emotionally engaging and ultimately uplifting.

George's previous writing credits include the "troubles" dramas In the Name of the Father (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), Some Mother's Son - which he also directed - and The Boxer. The current film follows in that tradition, of making films that recognize the fact that "politics" (in the sense of the structures of social-organization under which we live) is not an abstract concept, but something that has profound - even life-or-death - consequences for the daily lives of real people.

They focus the story on a singular act of conscience, the decision of one Rwandan man to do everything he was able to do, to oppose and counteract the insanity around him By doing so they give themselves room to keep the grisly horror of the situation in the background - where it does not overwhelm the viewer - without either devaluing or sensationalizing the suffering. It is a very fine line, and the choices George and his team make show a deep understanding of the role of film as a story-telling medium.

The moving images of film (and television), their immediacy and their ability to go in close give them a presence that can easily overpower viewers. Some images are simply too painful to take in. As one of the characters in the film, an American news videographer named Jack (Joaquin Phoenix) who has photographed some of the massacres, says, "If people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's terrible,' and they'll go on eating their dinners."

To the extent that we desensitize ourselves to the true depth of the abyss into which ordinary human beings can sink (for our own psychological self-protection) we also blind ourselves to the redeeming power of the feeble but unquenchable light that can be cast by a single individual. It is this defensive indifference that the filmmakers have worked very sensitively and successfully here to circumvent.

By moving away from the sensationalism of the headlines and enormity of the violence, and focusing instead on the family and psychological drama of one man, the filmmakers have bounded the massive national tragedy into a very personal, accessible framework. This specific perspective allows us to understand and experience the dynamics of the situation in a way that a more abstract, historical approach never could.

Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) - the central character of the film - is a real person, who today lives with his family in Belgium, the former colonial power in Rwanda. His story is not one of superhuman heroism, but of ordinary, tentative, ambivalent, compassion and responsibility. Early in the film, during the events that preceded the genocide, he is seen turning away from the brutal arrest of a neighbor with a dejected shrug of the shoulders and a comment of "there is nothing we can do."

But - and this is the remarkable and inspiring aspect of the film - when this ordinary man is put in a position where he is called upon to do extraordinary things, he rises to the challenge. Circumstances conspire to call on Rusesabagina to make decisions that may mean life and death - for him, for his own family, and for the extended family of more than twelve-hundred refugees that crowd into the hotel where he has been the manager.

Largely abandoned by the European/American community, in the midst of a life-threatening situation ignored by the world, working with a deeply-idealistic but frustrated and nearly-powerless UN force and a corrupt but malleable local army officer, and with some distant but essential support from the hotel's Belgian owners, Rusesabagina manipulates the situation in spite of his own uncertainty and fear.

In one of the pivotal moments of the film, given the opportunity to escape to Belgium under UN protection, Rusesabagina chooses to send his family while he stays behind. As played out by Cheadle, it is an extraordinary moment of emotional complexity where the impulse towards altruism wins out (though not by any means unambiguously) over self-preservation.

In Cheadle's expression as he watches the trucks roll out, in his posture and gestures, we can read the struggle of the principled man, led by the impulse of what is, perhaps, his "higher nature," to act against what is, perhaps, his "better judgement." It is a moment of moral and emotional paradox that embodies the kinds of issues this film will leave you thinking about for a long time afterwards.

The film is constructed as a kind of a "suspense thriller," with much of the suspense generated by our concern for the characters in their precarious situation. While some may feel that this format - which includes several "nick-of-time" reversals where tragedy is avoided by a hairsbreadth - is in itself exploitative or manipulative, it is undeniable that the events portrayed actually took place in very much the way depicted, and that lives actually hung in the balance of an attitude, a gift of whiskey or beer, a word or a quickly-made decision.

George has judged that the way to tell the story and make it bearable and even attractive to audiences is to keep the pace fast, to emphasize the critical crises of the unfolding events and to focus on the personal repercussions rather than the global "meaning" of the event. Thus, while Rusesabagina manages to save his own family, his wife's sister and brother-in-law (who gives Paul his first hint of what may be in store) disappear among the nameless victims of the massacres.

The penultimate moment of the film - again firmly grounded in actual events - is the Rusesabagina family's reunion with their nieces in a refugee camp. The joy at finding them alive - and the implicit tragedy of their having been orphaned so suddenly and brutally - make this something far different from an orchestrated "feel-good" moment.

While George and Pearson have earned their Oscar nomination for producing a screenplay that is forceful and stirring without being melodramatic, a great deal of the credit for the film's success has to go to Don Cheadle - an often overlooked actor of great talent, who has suffered from the lack of interesting leading parts for black actors.

If anyone had any doubt about Cheadle's talent after seeing him disappear into the character of Sammy Davis Jr. in 1998's TV film The Rat Pack (for which he won a Golden Globe Award) or the cockney explosives expert Basher Tarr in Ocean's Eleven (and Twelve) - as well as his many performances in films as diverse as Rosewood, Boogie Nights, Bulworth, Out of Sight and Traffic - such doubts are put to rest here. Cheadle delivers a performance as complex and nuanced as any in recent memory.

As Rusesabagina goes from eager-to-please, decorous, soft-spoken hotel manager to a man fighting for his very life and lives of his children and neighbors, Cheadle gives us an electrifying look a man on the edge of control, brought through by a miraculous combination of his own character - both its strengths and its failings - and blind luck. Cheadle manages to communicate the intensity of the character's feeling in the midst of unimaginable pressure with absolute sincerity. He presents Rusesabagina as a somewhat hapless and self-deluded man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time - but whose essential rightness (and good luck) within that wrongness led to something extraordinary.

Sophie Okonedo gives an edgy and quietly-incendiary performance as Rusesabagina's wife Tatiana - unlike her husband, a member of the "Tutsi" ethnic minority (which we learn was an artificial distinction created by Rwanda's colonizers!) which is being targeted in the genocide. There are three particular scenes - one on the roof of the hotel, one when she returns from an attempted escape, and the last when she finds her nieces in the refugee camp - where her reactions to the events around her are so strikingly fresh and "un-actorly" that they are absolutely convincing and deeply moving.

The combination of desperation, compassion and quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) strength Okonedo displays, as well as the tenderness she shows to her children and her husband raise the stakes for the audience enormously, and create a deeply sympathetic emotional center who becomes a second focus for us, as she is the center for Rusesabagina.

Nick Nolte, as the Canadian commander of the UN "peacekeepers," conveys the schizoid stress of a man who is deeply cynical and passionately idealistic at the same time. He has the film's best speech - the furious, painful rant that gives Rusesabagina the first clear insight into his actual position - and acts as a reminder that even in hopelessly inept and impotent bureaucracies - as the UN proved to be in this instance - people of good will and conscience can still make a positive difference.

Joaquin Phoenix also makes a considerable contribution in a relatively small part. As the conflicted news-videographer who is appalled by the violence he is witnessing, yet aware of his own inability to do anything to remedy the situation, he acts as a voice of conscience for all those of us who belong to communities that failed to react to the events in Rwanda. In addition to the line quoted above, as he is being loaded onto a bus to be spirited away to a protected "whites only" evacuation, he turns and looks back and says, to himself, "I'm so ashamed." Phoenix puts the line across with a controlled sense of realization that makes it resonate more powerfully than a scream.

In a rare burst of lucidity on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Hotel Rwanda has received several well-deserved nominations for Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay for George and Pearson, Best Actor for Cheadle, and Best Supporting Actress for British/Nigerian actress Okonedo.

On the other hand, why this film should have been ignored in the Best Director and Best Film categories, while a mediocre commercial effort like The Aviator is so honored is just another of the insoluble conundrums that epitomize the Enigma That Is the AMPAS.

The production values of this Canadian/UK/Italian/South African co-production are excellent. The camera-work by cinematographer Robert Fraisse, much of which is hand-held to convey an immediacy and a "documentary" feel , manages to convey the sense of having been shot-on-the-fly without the queasiness that bad hand-held work can provoke. The set-up shots are beautifully framed and composed, although the significance of an image or sequence is never sacrificed for mere "beauty."

The management of large groups of mostly South African extras, including lots of children, is handled with such skill that the many crowd scenes never seem even remotely artificial. The costumes and design of the film give it an exotic texture - but are restrained to the point that don't enable us to distance ourselves from the context. The contrast of the elegance of the five-star Milles Collines Hotel with the events unfolding in the surrounding city - and the gradual devolution of the luxury hotel into de-facto refugee camp - act as a gauge measuring the increasing level of desperation and the country's descent into madness.

In remebrance of the Nazi Holocaust, we hear the words "Never Again" repeated over and over. But the events in Rwanda (and those now unfolding in Darfur, Sudan, in which Cheadle has, since the filming of Hotel Rwanda, taken an activist role) give the lie to that bravely proclaimed and hopeful intention.

It is clearly George's intent to see to it that our signal failure in 1994 to live up to the commitment we made in 1945 is not forgotten, and that we hold ourselves responsible for it - hoping that, in doing so, we may again be reminded of why we made that promise in the first place, and of what we lose in terms of our common humanity and dignity by failing to keep it.

This is a film that will stick in the mind. It is full of thoughtful emotional intricacy and speaks to the deepest human fears and aspirations. Like a number of the finest and most emotionally powerful films, including Before the Rain, No Man's Land, Welcome to Sarajevo and American History X, I can't recommend it as "entertainment." It is something far more meaningful and moving than that - a film that, like a piece of literature, offers an opportunity to experience something totally foreign to ordinary life, to learn from it, and to use it to change ourselves and our world for the better.

That's my take on it. What's yours?