Hotel Rwanda


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"This is a solid film, but it is the truth that holds the power, not the direction." | Photo: © 2005 United Artists (MGM)

In 1994, the powder keg of trouble that was Rwanda was about to go off - and the West was about to shut its eyes and wait for the blast. But that year didn't start the fire. In 1962, the Belgians, after a long colonial presence, quit the country, giving it its independence.

Sadly, they lit the blue touch paper before standing well back. While under their rule, the nation had been split according to ethnicity. Using methods, including the shameful measuring of foreheads and a good old class system - if you had more than 10 cows, you were Tutsi, if not, Hutu - the country was divided in two. Tutsis, although in the minority, were the favoured race under Belgian rule - obviously not the greatest basis for love, peace and understanding. Even less explicable, the Belgians exacerbated the situation by maneuvering power into the hands of a Hutu party, which quickly institutionalised racism against the Tutsi, before leaving.

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What followed was decades of bloodshed that came to a head in the early Nineties. Army lines had been drawn and death was ensuing. What a great moment, then, when in 1993 the president Juvenal Habyarimana signed a peace treaty with the Tutsi rebels and welcomed around 2,500 UN peacekeepers, led by the Canadian general Romeo Dallaire. You might think that that would be the end of the story. But it wasn't. By 1994, Dallaire got wind of a plan by extremist Hutus to kill the Tutsis and when, in January of that year, the president's plane was shot down, the lid came off. Using radio broadcasts to orchestrate atrocities, the killing began and among the dead was a small group of Belgian peacekeepers. So what did the West do? Pulled out all but a handful of troops in April, leaving the nation to tear itself apart.

Rwanda has been something of a "secret shame" ever since, falling in the shadow of other conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, in 2005, thanks to Hollywood and independent studios, you will have the opportunity to see two explorations of the violence - Shake Hands With The Devil, a documentary that follows Romeo Dallaire on an emotional return to the country, recounting his tale and facing the demons, and this dramatized version of a true story, Hotel Rwanda.

The film picks up just before the presidential assassination. Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) was a Hutu hotel manager, married to a Tutsi (Sophie Okonedo), who never underestimated the value of a bribe. Greasing the wheels of commerce and police protection with the occasional bottle of single malt, he runs a tight ship in a hotel catering for peacekeepers, international bigwigs and local generals, and cares little for politics, except with a view to storing up favours in case he needs them.

When the president is killed, however, he finds his family has become a target for extremist Hutus keen to wipe out the Tutsi "cockroaches". He shelters them and his scared neighbours in the hotel and as the rich of the West fly out, Tutsi refugees and their families rush in, seeking out what little protection he can offer. The UN force, led by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte, playing a role that is surely loosely based on Dallaire), paralysed by a lack of manpower, does what it can to help but it soon becomes clear that Paul will have to rely on his own resilience and back catalogue of favours to keep as many of the Tutsi alive as he can.

You can't fault the story, particularly as it is rooted in real life. The idea of everyday heroism has a big appeal and comes as a welcome relief after a glut of movies based on fantastical superheroes. That the story of this genocide - and the world's avoidance of it - is being told is also important, neatly pinpointing racism that exists on the part of the West when it comes to Africa. As a photo journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) puts it: "If people see this footage they say, 'How horrible', then go on eating their dinners."

Cheadle and Okonedo have both been nominated for acting gongs at this year's Oscars. They certainly put in compelling performances, but Okonedo's character lacks depth, being left to cry a great deal and hug her children. In fact, this is one of the film's problems, with many of the characters being a bit too one-trick. Also, the focus is firmly on Paul's approach to averting atrocity, with a great deal of the action taking place within the hotel. This distance from the horror gives the film an over-sanitised feel, as it seems to aim for some bizarre form of "family viewing", while the sweeping, string-laden score gives it a romanticised edge we could well do without.

Given the grim subject matter, it hardly seems likely that this film will appeal to under-15s, so why not show us more of the grit - around a million people, both Tutsi and Hutu lost their lives in the genocide - and really bring it home? Much like the Western media at the time, writer/director Terry George too often turns his back on the reality of the violence.

This is a solid film, but it is the truth that holds the power, not the direction. To explain the genocide, the history and tell a human interest story is a big task and yet George is no stranger to political divides. From Northern Ireland, he was jailed for suspected Republican links in the Seventies and has covered a lot of sectarian ground in the past, writing screenplays for In The Name of The Father and The Boxer. He captures the divisiveness well but some of the characterisation slips between the cracks.

That said, there are some deeply moving scenes, particularly when the West pulls out and George lets some of the chaos in, but overall it feels too glossy, like a Hello! version of a much darker tale. It should be shown as a double bill with Shake Hands With The Devil, so people can compare the romance with the reality.

Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2005
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True story of a Hutu hotel manager in Rwanda who protects Tutsis during the genocide.
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Read more Hotel Rwanda reviews:

Jennie Kermode ***1/2

Director: Terry George

Writer: Keir Pearson, Terry George

Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Cara Seymour, Tony Kgoroge, Fana Mokoena, David O'Hara, Desmond Dube, Mosa Kaiser, Mathabo Pieterson, Ofentse Modiselle, Hakeem Kae-Kasim

Year: 2004

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Canada/Italy/UK/South Africa


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