Hotel Rwanda

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

7 April

Rwandan genocide starts, 1994

On this day in 1994, a period of mass killing lasting 100 days started in Rwanda, during which around 20% of the country’s population was killed. The violence was organised by the government, targeted against the Tutsi tribe and carried out by members of the Rwandan army, the police, as well as government backed militias and members of the Hutu population. Between 500,000 and a million people were killed, largely by machete, as neighbour turned on neighbour, the Hutus gaining the land of their Tutsi neighbours once they’d murdered them. The grievance of the Hutus against the Tutsis was old and to say they had no cause would be naive. However, the ferocity of the attack was astonishing. As the world stood back and debated whether genocide was in fact occurring, the genocide raged through the country, until it was brought to a halt by the army of Rwandan Patriotic Front (Tutsis) after it toppled the government.

Hotel Rwanda (2004, dir: Terry George)

Films about genocide always risk comparison with Schindler’s List. They also suffer from what you might call the Schindler Problem – how do you serve up mass slaughter as light entertainment? The answer, as Hotel Rwanda proves, is that you create a strong drama first and use the historical detail for authenticity, rather than getting bogged down in the small print. You also need actors who can punch through the worthiness. Don Cheadle in his first big starring role fits the bill perfectly, and there’s no trace of the gorblimey cockney from Ocean’s 11 a couple of years before. Instead Cheadle humanises what might easily have been a saintly cipher – playing Paul Rusesabagina, the decent, methodical Hutu hotel manager saving hundreds of Tutsis from death by machete in his abandoned luxury hotel. Sophie Okonedo plays his Tutsi wife, wondering whether her husband’s charitable actions are going to have personal repercussions. And there’s Nick Nolte, solid as granite as the United Nations peacekeeper who is powerless to stop the bloodshed because he’s only allowed to act in self-defence. It’s the story of people being pushed incrementally towards heroism, not hero-types looking for a situation. Put simply, Hotel Rwanda is a proper film – well acted and well shot, engrossing and inspiring, whether you care a whole heap about dead Rwandans or not the slightest bit at all. And it’s a true story. There really was a hotel, the Hotel des Milles Collines, and a Paul Rusesabagina and a Nolte-like UN guy. True, the film doesn’t explain the background of the genocide, or its full extent. But it isn’t trying to, having gambled that the way to tell a big story is by shining a light on a small but important one.

Why Watch?

  • Don Cheadle’s performance
  • Director Terry George’s eye for shocking telltale detail
  • The great support cast includes Joaquin Phoenix
  • A history lesson compellingly taught

Hotel Rwanda – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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