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Requiem for Rwanda

A review of *Hotel Rwanda (R)

Don Cheadle (foreground) shines in Hotel Rwanda, - recounting the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
  • Don Cheadle (foreground) shines in Hotel Rwanda, recounting the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

*Hotel Rwanda (R)

In 1994, Rwanda became a slaughterhouse. The conflict erupted between two ethnic populations, the then-ruling Hutus and the once-dominant Tutsis. A deadly cabal of Hutu politicians, military leaders and radio and print journalists stoked the massacre by playing on Hutu racism and fears of resurgent Tutsi dominance. Many ordinary Hutus took to the streets, machete in hand, and butchered their neighbors -- eventually killing as many as 1 million men, women and children. While this happened, the West largely turned its back.

The nature and origins of the conflict -- involving lingering European colonial influence, tribal hatreds, poverty and prevalent alcoholism -- are far too complex for any film to totally grasp. Hotel Rwanda instead wisely focuses on one of the most heartening true stories to emerge from Rwanda that year.

Don Cheadle (Traffic) shines as Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi and manager of the Mille Collines, an elegant European hotel in Kigali. Sophie Okonedo, who plays Paul's wife, also turns in a riveting performance as a woman whose family faces inexplicable slaughter. Paul emerges as the film's hero, sheltering 1,268 refugees in the hotel and using his wits to fend off the Hutu killers.

Cheadle adeptly portrays a man of extraordinary persuasive skills initially seen sleepwalking through life. In the early scenes, we see Paul entranced by the good life: Cohiba cigars, tailored suits, European style. Only after Kigali falls into darkness -- its streets filled with roving gangs of Hutu killers called the Interhamwe -- does he come to realize his pretensions were a mirage. His beloved foreigners do not intervene as the bodies pile up on the surrounding streets.

Nick Nolte plays Colonel Oliver, leader of the small band of U.N. forces under strict orders not to fire their weapons. Nolte gives a decent portrayal of a boozy, run-down Canadian military man caught between his humanity and his strict rules of engagement. This is a shame, because the man he loosely portrays, the Canadian U.N. leader Romeo Dallaire, actually was a hero who stayed in Rwanda far longer than required and saved many lives himself.

Rookie director Terry George wields fear and suspense better than many veteran horror film directors. He also fits an admirable amount of history into a tightly knit dramatic plot. This allows him to voice important perspectives: The Belgians created the division between Hutu and Tutsi; the French supplied the Hutus; and the Americans didn't have the guts to call the widespread killing "genocide." He also interlaces enough humor in the film to allow the viewer to breathe in what is otherwise an emotionally exhausting ride.

But along with his overall success, there are a few gaffes. First, the assassination of Rwanda's president is attributed by Hutu Power radio as the work of Tutsi rebels. This was unlikely to have been the case, but it's never clarified. Secondly, we see what amounts to a Heineken product-placement commercial in an emotionally charged scene between Paul and his wife. Lastly, the actor's voices are poorly overdubbed in a climactic moment between Paul and an army general friend of his who did not participate in the killings but looked the other way.

All that being said, Hotel Rwanda remains a very important film. The so-called "civil society" of the rich countries fell on its face in 1994, making the anti-genocide cry of "never again" ring hollow. The world returned to this dilemma in 2004 with the Darfur situation in Sudan, which Colin Powell found the guts to call "genocide." Because Hotel Rwanda is such a good movie, solidly directed with excellent acting, hundreds of thousands of people will watch it. Hopefully in this way the net separating society from the darkness of genocide will be drawn tighter.

-- Dan Wilcock

Opening soon at Kimball's Twin Peak

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