Hotel Rwanda

By Terry George

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Paul Rusesabagina is Hutu and is in charge of one of Kigali’s biggest hotels. Letting about a thousand Tutsis take refuge there during the 1994 Genocide, he succeeds in stopping the Hutu militia from coming to slaughter them. This is Terry George’s fiction choice to make this tragedy of African history accessible to a wide audience who, in its majority, still believes it was an ethnic conflict and doesn’t know its origin or the way things unfolded.
The intention is honest and the result is fair: the film moves us in its sincerity, its reserve as regards to the representation of horror, its sense of decency towards the pain and the dignity it tries to preserve in these people ridden by fear, its sensitivity in the manner of portraying this man, married to a Tutsi, and his relationship with his family and the people he is protecting. Don Cheadle’s performance, both simple and intense, plays a major role in this. It allows one to believe in the interior turnaround of this elegant manipulator dressed in a suit, who thinks he can protect himself by showering his protectors with whisky bottles. He thinks he is keeping out of the fray, but the brutality of the genocide quickly catches up with him. He can still bribe his attackers for a while but he realizes that Western countries are letting him down, him, his family and his group of refugees as much as his country: The UN withdraws its troops and lets the massacres be perpetrated. It’s not the least of the film’s qualities to spell things out. Paul Rusesabagina’s strength of survival ultimately gets the upper hand, allowing him to assert his autonomy: he will manage to face up to things and find the arguments that allow him to negotiate on an equal footing, like the time he threatens the general of the Hutu army, who threatens to withdraw his protection, with international retaliation.
But is the film’s pedagogical ambition achieved for all that? Surely not in its sugary happy end where, on the newly found path to freedom, Paul and his family find their nieces that they had searched for for a long time, with the help of a Red Cross nurse, eternal character representing the good White person guiding the disconcerted Black person. This optimistic ending stems from a will to keep a distance, in order not to scare children and adults with one of those African tragedies that are already broadcast too much on TV. But it is also, like Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, where a German entrepreneur saves Jews from extermination, the deep contradiction of a film that uses an exceptional episode to define the genocide, an episode of rescue and not of death, even if they are linked.
After a first half devoted to Paul Rusesabagina’s progressive awakening, the film focuses on a suspicious suspense where the refugees try to escape from assailants who are no more than the undifferentiated version of the bad ones, interhamwe militiamen, inevitably uncontrolled and repugnant. This vision of the genocide brings us back to the prevailing discourse of the ethnic war, stemming from an African atavism of bestial strength that modernity has not yet been able to control in these under-developed countries…It weakens the essential political analysis of a long-prepared genocide which followed a predetermined plan of systematic extermination of part of the Rwandan population. This point of view was nonetheless shown in the film through the character of Thomas, Paul’s step-brother who comes to warn him about the imminence of the tragedy, but it is not developed more than that.
How to represent the scale of the genocide without showing it? Its immeasurable horror cannot be shown, at the risk of putting the spectator in the humiliating role of a voyeur. It can only be suggested. Where the first fiction about the genocide in 2003, British film-maker Nick Hugues’s 100 Days, did not hesitate in acting out bloody massacres, Hotel Rwanda manages to avoid falling into that trap. In the midst of the events but without reliable information, Paul will only find out their extent after seeing the victims. Taking the road down the river in the fog, his minivan stumbles on lifeless bodies and as the fog clears, it reveals hundreds of them. It is the only moment in the film where we see the genocide and it is sufficient.
And yet, there is another scene on a TV screen: images shot by BBC journalists, 800 meters from the hotel, showing the plain horror of men killing their fellow beings with knives. These images did not allow European officials to realize quickly enough what was happening and neither did they tell us, spectators, what the genocide was. The testimonies do not correspond to these images that were shot from a distance and in secret. They go way beyond that.
What appears to be authentic is actually just a toned-down version of reality. So what is the point in trying to represent it when it cannot be conveyed through reconstruction? Each and every attempt that follows this idea aims at trivializing it and thus takes away from the genocide the enormity of its singularity. « Reconstruction, used to say Claude Lanzmann, maker of Shoah, is, in a sense, creating archives »: By reconstructing, we restructure and we pass things on.
The positive character embodied by hero Paul Rusesabagina is a not quite representative of the genocide. For the victims’ daily lives were not about survival, but death. The protection of all of the members of his family also does not reflect the true end of the massacre for the families. On the contrary, horror is still there, and could start again. With the result that, contrary to its good intentions, and although deeply moving, Hotel Rwanda does not call for vigilance, as it aimed to do.

Translated by Céline Dewaele.///Article N° : 5941

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