(Watched Hotel Rwanda at the India Habitat Centre last evening, a special screening to mark World Refugee Day.)
How many "acts of genocide" does it take to make a genocide?
- Reporter Alan Elsner, during the Rwanda massacres
And how many people do you have to save to be a saviour? At the heart of Hotel Rwanda is a story similar both in its structure and its lessons to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List: the story of an ordinary, worldly man finding depths within himself that even he probably never imagined existed, and risking everything to save the lives of a few hundred people faced with certain death. In the final analysis, one person can make a difference – even if, for the thousand people who survived, a million didn’t. What was that story about throwing a single dying starfish back into the sea?
Unlike Spielberg’s epic, which drew attention to the importance of its story with each beautifully composed black-and-white frame, Hotel Rwanda is an unassuming film that derives its power from a tight script and solid performances. To some extent, the understatement was a given: Schindler’s List was set against the background of the Holocaust, universally acknowledged as the greatest tragedy of the last century, but Hotel Rwanda deals with a much less known, or understood, horror – the genocide perpetuated on the Tutsis by Hutu extremists in Rwanda in the early 1990s. As one character even points out, this was a massacre most people around the world would probably have heard about on their TV sets, said "That’s terrible!" and then gone back to eating their dinners. This is not a film that can afford to take the viewer’s interest for granted - and so, instead of attempting to be an all-encompassing polemic, it focuses on one man who made a difference.
Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is the manager of a five-star hotel in Kigali. He’s a shifty little fellow, not above ingratiating rich customers, taking and giving bribes to ensure the smooth running of the business, and unconcerned with much beyond the welfare of his own wife and children: unlikely material for a hero. His attitude is highlighted by an early scene: as political tensions increase across the country and soldiers raid people’s homes at night, Paul dissociates himself from a neighbour’s tragedy with the words "He isn’t family – family is all that matters".
Paul, a Hutu himself (though his wife Tatiana is a Tutsi), falls into the role of saviour almost by accident, but once he realises that he has the means to save Tutsi lives - by giving them refuge in his hotel - there’s no turning back for him. Using all the professional skills acquired over years of hotel management - buying time by serving beer to impatient soldiers, smoothly convincing a confused general that the Americans "are watching our every move through their satellites" - he staves off the marauding Hutus. Quietly, without much comment, the film traces how this man, faced with extraordinary circumstances, rises in moral stature so that by the end he is apologizing to the people he saved: "I wish I could have done more".
Hotel Rwanda has been accused in some quarters of not being hard-hitting enough, but I don’t know about that. It’s true that the film doesn’t take it upon itself to realistically depict the full scale of the Rwandan tragedy, but then it didn’t set out to be a documentary: it recognised that to be widely seen around the world (which was the principal intention) it had to be an engrossing, narrative-driven feature film. Given that brief, it is an almost unqualified success.
Besides, who says you need scene after scene of gruesome violence to make a point? Hotel Rwanda is most effective in its quiet moments. Like when a photographer (a bearded Joachim Phoenix, in an odd little appearance) tries to understand the differences between the two groups in terms of their physical attributes, then sees two friends - one a Hutu, the other a Tutsi - at a bar and remarks bemusedly "They could be twins." Or in a brief glimpse of Paul’s identity card which has "Hutu" stamped across it. A throwaway line by an officer as he agrees to spare lives in exchange for a bribe: "It’s okay, we’ll kill them later." A scene between Paul and his wife that begins as a relaxed romantic interlude but ends with him telling her to "not allow the children to see us die first, if it comes to that".
The one time Hotel Rwanda rang untrue for me was in its ending, which invests too much dramatic tension in whether or not Paul and Tatiana will find their orphaned nieces among the children of a refugee camp. In the end the reunited family walk off together, as if the story all along had been only about them. This is still nowhere close to a manufactured Hollywood ending – after all, the last title in the film mentions that a million people were killed – but it still feels a little pat compared to what went before. Even that, however, is indicative of how powerful the rest of the film is.