More noise than signal

Hotel Rwanda

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

Rwanda, early nineties. Not the most affluent country in the world, but it gets by. Decent numbers of tourists flock to the swish Hotel Des Mille Collines under the auspices of house manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle). A man who knows how to grease the wheels of industry and government with some well placed ‘gifts’. A man of style, class and dignity. Loving wife, beautiful kids. Life is good. Despite lingering tension between the Hutu and Tutsi factions, a peace accord is about to be signed that should settle things, and besides there’s a U.N. Peacekeeping force to, er, keep the peace should anything funky occur.

Events do not unfold that way. April 6th, 1994 – President Habyarimana is assassinated, most likely by Hutu extremists to sabotage peace accords. Rwandan army forces and the Hutu militia, the interahamwe move from house to house slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians. The Tutsi rebels start to fight back. Within three weeks there are estimates of one hundred thousand deaths, including ten Belgian soldiers as part of the U.N. contingent. In the face of this staggering slaughter the Western world swings into decisive action, by evacuating their foreign nationals and most of the soldiers. The Rwandans are left to fend for themselves.

The conflict lasts for one hundred days. An estimated eight hundred thousand Rwandans lose their lives. Hotel Rwanda is the story of Paul Rusesabagina’s action and, extraordinary efforts to keep as many people safe during this as possible. Understandably he starts out trying to keep his family safe, but by maintaining a facade of normality despite the hotel bursting at the seams with refugees from the violence he’s somehow able to dissuade the interahamwe and army forces from steaming in and killing everyone.

By force of personality, calling in favours particularly with Scotch loving General Augustin Bizimungo (Fana Mokoena) and what little support the hamstrung U.N. forces under Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte) can provide, Paul proves himself to be a hero in the truest sense of the word – an ordinary man doing something extraordinary while the rest of the world does nothing whatsoever. Incidentally the only real fictional part of the story is Colonel Oliver, a character based loosely on the real U.N. commander Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, a good man tied by some inexplicable rules of non-engagement.

It was back in the eighteenth century when Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” and it’s just as true now as it was then. The failure of the international community to stop this slaughter, even to simply call it by the genocide that it was (this would have obligated them to prevent and punish this, so spokespeople talk in weasel words such as ‘acts of genocide’), was so complete, so shocking, so shaming that we’d have to recommend everyone watch this film purely because if we forget this act we’re doomed to repeat it.

This sounds like a setup to say that the actual film is dry and disappointing, but ain’t the case. You can’t fail to have noticed the Oscar nominations that this film has garnered, for Don Cheadle in particular. Rarely a name that comes to mind if you’re doing a list of top actors, not through lack of talent or roles. If you watch, say Tom Hanks in a movie no matter how good he is (and he is good) there’s always moments where it’s clearly Tom Hanks doing a war movie, a gangster movie, whatever. Don Cheadle never suffers from this; from the moment he appears onscreen he becomes the character. He’s never less than utterly convincing and completely compelling. His reputation was hardly less than stellar before Hotel Rwanda but this should assure a position in the upper echelons of Hollywood for years to come.

There’s fine support from Sophie Okonedo as Paul’s wife Tatiana, Cara Seymour as Red Cross medic Pat Archer but particularly from Nolte. His frustration at his inability to help people in a desperate situation that was the point of his troops being there in the first place is palpable. The fact he’s so clearly based on a real person clearly equally frustrated and angered by his superior’s behaviour weakens the impact of it coming from a fictional character only slightly.

Terry George keeps things fairly simple behind the camera. God knows there’s quite enough drama coming from the narrative to exclude the need for any fancy techniques that would only hurt the film. Kudos for pulling off a rare occurrence of getting top notch performances from every actor in the piece. The closest I can come to criticising this would be there’s little sense of the actual time that passes; the ordeal was longer than the film would seem to suggest but I feel dirty for even mentioning this. This niggle is only mentioned to maintain my street cred as a die-hard curmudgeonly cynical nit-picker when I should be shouting from rooftops about how much you need to watch this film.

I almost don’t want to say that Hotel Rwanda tells a good story; it seems to denigrate the importance of it. In human interest terms this is riveting, in terms of what the events portrayed within force us to think about it’s vital. Every bit as important as Schindlers List, and crucially every bit as compelling too. There’s really no qualifiers I can think of regarding this film, you just have to see it. No questions. Go on, get moving.

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