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Hotel Rwanda
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by Robert Flaxman

"A powerful historical document."
5 stars

No matter how well-made, films about tragic events on a grand scale, like the Holocaust, usually have the same problem: they come across as minimizing a tragedy by telling it as the story of a single person, or at best a small group. Not all of this criticism is deserved; it’s hard to tell stories of any kind without narrowing the focus for dramatic purposes. What is most impressive about Terry George’s film Hotel Rwanda is that it tells its story from the point of view of a single man, but chooses one who was so well-connected that the entire world is able to fall into place around him.

It’s important to understand the history of the Rwandan conflict, much of which is explained in the film. When the Belgians ruled the area that became Rwanda, the Tutsi minority was in power, and assisted the Belgians in their colonialist oppression of most of the nation. Shortly before Rwanda gained independence in 1959, the Hutu majority overthrew the Tutsi king, and drove a number of Tutsis out of the country. The children of those Tutsis eventually became the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel group which attacked the country on October 1, 1990.

The Hutu government was losing popularity at the time, leading the president and his associates to work to strengthen the previously-existing ethnic divide. Events came to a head on April 6, 1994, when the plane carrying the president was shot down. The army and militia leaped into action, carrying out systematic execution both of Tutsis and of Hutu political opponents.

45 minutes into Hotel Rwanda, it seems as though everything is all right. The European powers have sent a force into the country which, it is assumed, will restore the peace. It was not to be, however; the European force came in, retrieved every Western citizen willing to leave (which was nearly all of them), and was out as quickly as it had arrived. The false hope and ultimate tragedy of this event is depicted with heart-rending clarity – as Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte) tells Paul (Don Cheadle), the West simply didn’t care about the African angle, just about getting its own people home safe. A scene in which soldiers explain to a white priest that he can leave but that the dozens of Tutsi orphans he cares for must stay in the country is shattering.

Of course, is it any surprise that the West didn’t care about the conflict, at least not enough to stop it? Just 80 years before, there were only two states in Africa that weren’t under colonial rule – Liberia and Ethiopia. The rest of the continent was carved up like a turkey. The Europeans had no regard for existing tribal boundaries; divisions were made based on geography or resources, or simply on who arrived where first. Colonial powers viewed Africa exclusively as a commodity, and all commodities eventually outlive their usefulness; as soon as Africa decided it had had enough of colonial rule, there was a mass exodus – virtually every state in sub-Saharan Africa gained independence between 1955 and 1975. Africa had become more trouble than it was worth.

So it was in 1994. As soon as it became clear that the peace the UN was there to broker was not likely to happen, the UN pretty much pulled out. And so goes most of the second half of Hotel Rwanda, in which the unbelievably courageous hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina does everything he can – an astonishing amount – to save the lives not only of his wife and family but of more than 1200 other Tutsis and moderate Hutus who have taken refuge at the hotel, which with the UN gone is really no longer a safe spot of any kind.

If it seems like I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the context of the film and not so much the film itself, it’s because a film like this is nothing without its context. As with Oskar Schindler, Rusesabagina’s heroics become more impressive when weighed against the scale on which the genocide was carried out. You could argue against the narrowness of focus all day, but when 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were killed in the span of three months, the idea that a single man – a hotel manager with a few powerful contacts – could save well over a thousand is nothing if not amazing.

Besides, the film doesn’t gloss over the atrocities just because it shows them through Paul’s eyes. If anything, what we see is strengthened by this. Paul is Hutu but his wife and many of their friends are Tutsi, and Paul has no desire to be involved in the divisive politics of the Hutu government. He is an embodiment of the idea that ethnicity really means very little, and yet through what he sees, we know that it can mean everything in a climate of fear and hatred.

What is important about Hotel Rwanda is not that the story of Paul is being told, but that the story of Rwanda itself is being told. It’s easy to dismiss the film by charging it with being manipulative – and it can be quite manipulative at times, but that’s well beside the point. At one point in the film, Joaquin Phoenix’s American cameraman character tells Paul what he expects reaction to massacre footage he took will be: “They’ll say ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.” Clearly, mere depiction is not good enough to get people to notice things like this; if it takes a few knowingly-placed music cues, is that really such a bad thing? Some stories are important enough to deserve it. Do we see a lot of big-eyed children looking sad? Yes, but what makes anyone think that’s a phony detail when the most extreme of the Hutus wanted to wipe out the Tutsi children first so as to cut off the next generation?

I almost got through this whole review without discussing Cheadle’s performance, which is masterful. He is asked to carry the film on his back and does so, throughout calm, mayhem, and emotional highs and lows. A man who can serve as the linchpin for a film this powerful and never once falter deserves recognition, and I sincerely hope that Cheadle is at the very least nominated at the Oscars; the Golden Globe nod is a good start.

Powerful, chilling, moving and unforgettable, Hotel Rwanda may not be the best film released this year when all is said and done, but it has the inside track – and it is unquestionably the most affecting. I have never cried at a movie as much as I did at this one, and I don’t feel the least bit ashamed for it – trying to contemplate the film’s context is enough to make one want to scream out loud. If people weren’t willing to take notice of Rwanda as it happened, at least now they can see what fools they were.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10461&reviewer=385
originally posted: 01/06/05 22:43:35
[printer] printer-friendly format  
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/20/08 Shaun Wallner Great Film! 5 stars
6/03/07 R.W. Welch Has an authentic feel to it. Standout turn by Cheadle. 4 stars
5/20/07 action movie fan boring tale of african turmoil-africa addio was much better and more harrowing 2 stars
10/29/06 Dorito Cheadle is a pretty good actor, but movie not even close to historicly correct 2 stars
3/18/06 MP Bartley Cleverly unstylised drama really impacts. Cheadle is magnificent. 5 stars
1/22/06 ANDREW FAYE AWESOME` 5 stars
10/08/05 DM Well-acted and moving despite feeling a bit too much like an inferior "Schindler's List." 4 stars
8/27/05 D Buckley TV movie at best. 2 stars
8/08/05 Bubba Fish A powerfully moving drama 5 stars
6/21/05 Phil M. Aficionado Really "worth a look" because it has drawbacks (just a few), "awesome" in candor/impact 5 stars
6/14/05 Maha Azzam It is an effective film that makes you not only feel the suffering but also live it. 5 stars
6/12/05 Helen Bradley Excellent acting better editing would improve pace 4 stars
6/10/05 Simon Moviemaking solid. Story immensely moving. Don Cheadle flawless. 5 stars
6/06/05 Indrid Cold Cheadle is great as promised, but nonwhere near the overall impact I expected. 3 stars
4/24/05 Jeff Anderson Gripping, authentic & real! Don Cheadle gives an unforgettable & brilliant performance. 5 stars
4/18/05 s dunivan it was great i thiught i showed what was going on 5 stars
4/15/05 shatonjia Awesome...a topic that the US overlooked until now. 5 stars
4/13/05 kimberly miller Its great movie i hope people watch its and really see whats going on in other countries. 5 stars
3/25/05 Greg Ursic A disturbing film. Cheadles performance was outstanding 4 stars
3/24/05 malcontent Cheadle should finally get deserved recognition 5 stars
3/14/05 brody WOW..... 5 stars
3/04/05 Heather Great movie, Don Cheadle's performanxce is Oscar worthy 5 stars
3/02/05 HORAN THE MAN!!!!! HOTELS SUCK MY LET NUT!!! 1 stars
3/02/05 David Tsung don, you finally got some deserved recognition 5 stars
3/01/05 jack cheadle is good but feel and pacing is not right 3 stars
2/27/05 Mike Hollywood. Forgettable despite a compelling topic. Wasted opportunity. 1 stars
2/25/05 Elizabeth S Powerful and unforgettable. 5 stars
2/17/05 Fahad Pinto very moving 5 stars
2/17/05 dian anderson AWESOME AND THE TRUTH IS SCARY 5 stars
2/16/05 Hilary Adamson Refreshing! First of this year's Oscar nominees I've see that's not about sex&the shitty! 4 stars
2/13/05 Nathan Wilhite Amazing! I was in Rwanda and 2000 and this movie stunned me. 5 stars
2/11/05 ray Cartoonish....Where does Hollywood come up with this stuff.... 1 stars
2/05/05 ajay stunning. 5 stars
2/04/05 Lisa Everyone must see this film! I'm stunned that it wasn't nominated for Best Picture. 5 stars
2/03/05 axe I've seen Tears of the Sun, which was, well, execrable. But this, friends, is well-executed 5 stars
2/01/05 Uncle Phucker Very poor excecuting in story telling. All the actors were fabulous! 3 stars
1/29/05 Nicole Great film 5 stars
1/24/05 Banzai Windmills Wow. We need more movies like this (ie, topical and starring Don Cheadle) 5 stars
1/24/05 Theresa Hew Powerful, Cheadle deserves the Oscar. 5 stars
1/23/05 MoVon Very well done! 5 stars
1/21/05 malcolm the theater was dead silent when this movie ended. scarier than any john carpenter film. 5 stars
1/18/05 Lisa Everyone over age 12 should see this film 5 stars
1/11/05 chris. i watched this after being forced to watch little back book. it saved me from suicide. 5 stars
1/08/05 cut the tall trees!! jesus fuckin christ I am a Hutu nigger and we are planning to take over the goddamn honky world!! 4 stars
12/20/04 Ray Superb 5 stars
12/10/04 Nick Truly powerful 5 stars
11/24/04 Jes AMAZING! he is by far a master actor.This films is also amazing,terrible story, but reality 5 stars
9/19/04 xx xxx 5 stars
9/14/04 bonnie great film, a must see 5 stars
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  22-Dec-2004 (R)
  DVD: 12-Apr-2005



Directed by
  Terry George

Written by
  Terry George
  Keir Pearson

  Don Cheadle
  Nick Nolte
  Sophie Okonedo
  Antonio David Lyons

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