Saturday, 9 May 2009

Movie Review - Hotel Rwanda

” When people ask me, good listeners, why do I hate all the Tutsi, I say: read our history. The Tutsi were collaborators for the belgian colonists, they stole our Hutu land, they whipped us. Now they have come back, these Tutsi rebels. They are cockroaches. They are murderers. Rwanda is our Hutu land. We are the majority. They are a minority of traitors and invaders. We will squash the infestation. We will wipe out the RPF rebels. This is RTLM Hutu power radio. Stay alert. Watch your neighbours.”

It’s hard to be totally objective about this film as I feel it deserves 5 stars simply for being made. The atrocities of the tribal conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutu in Rwanda in 1994 resulted in the death of nearly a million people and the displacement of even more, and of course the pain and suffering caused to untold millions in that country is something we can only guess at. Unlike troubles in other parts of the world where natural resources were at stake, however, these troubles caused little more than a ripple in the Western world. When compared to the coverage that 9/11 or the Gulf Wars received, it is sad to reflect on the truth of the message that comes across in this film; that to the West, Africans simply don’t matter. (“You're not even a nigger. You're African,” says the UN Colonel on the reason why the West won’t intervene.)

The story revolves around hotel House Manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), a Hutu married to Tatiana, a Tutsi (Sophie Okonedo) who finds himself helping over a thousand refugees. He is not portrayed as a saintly figure by any means – in fact, his pragmatic and astute businessman persona reminded me very much of Schindler (indeed, the situation bears more than a few similarities to events preceding the World Wars, with an assassination sparking off the war (Arch Duke Ferdinand, WWI) and the signing of a peace treaty (Neville Chamberlain, WWII) immediately preceding the “ethnic cleansing”,). He didn’t intend to be a hero, but through circumstances and ultimately trying to do the right thing, that’s what he ended up being. Other characters of note include Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), a Canadian UN Colonel in command of the Peacekeeping force whose regulations meant that they could never be more than ineffectual; a Hutu working at the hotel who doesn’t share Rusesabagina’s tolerance of the “cockroaches”, as the Tutsis are termed by the Hutu radio; a Red Cross worker; the President of Sabina, the Belgian company that owned the hotel, and an army General who helped Rusesabagina but not for any altruistic reasons. In fact, Rusesabagina surrounds himself with important people and pampers to their every whim in order to store up favours for his family if he ever needs them. In one of the most telling lines of the film, he realises that although he made himself believe that he was one of them (the Whites, the Rich, the Powerful), they never viewed him as such.

A short but memorable appearance by the excellent Joaquin Phoenix as a cameraman led to the most distressingly poignant line of the film: “If people see this they'll say 'Oh my God, that is horrible,' and then go on eating their dinners.”. The film most definitely has an agenda in terms of what it wants to tell you, but I can’t blame Director Terry George for that in the slightest – it’s a message that deserves to be said out loud. The story is good, though a little shoddily paced at times, and a couple of twists are a little bit too obvious. I would have liked a bit more exploration of some of the characters, but they’re far from 2-D.

Cheadle gives a fine performance as Paul Rusesabagina, but for me the best performance in the film came from Okonedo as his wife. She gave a performance of extraordinary emotional power that I will remember for a long time. Nick Nolte’s performance and that of Desmond Dube as Paul’s assistant (called Dube!) also gave good performances. I felt that Cara Seymour slightly underplayed her part, but not terribly so. Overall the cast were very good, and when you consider that the film had something like 15,000 extras who had 5 different main languages, and some of them were running round with machetes, it was quite an achievement! Some technical aspects of the film were just slightly sub-par and the music occasionally failed to add to the atmosphere of the film. Again these are just really small niggles but together they added up to stop the film from getting a 5-star rating.

The violence was scaled down somewhat to keep the rating down, though there were definitely some scenes younger children would find disturbing. The general sense of unrest and terror is captured very well, coming across on a national as well as personal level. The overwhelming concern of individual foreigners contrasted effectively against the general apathy of foreign governments – “Rwanda isn’t worth a single vote to them” is the stark comment of one character about the reason why French, British, and American governments were reluctant to intervene. Perhaps in our insanely litigious society a fear of being sued by anyone caught in the crossfire was another reason – only those who were actually in positions of power at the time truly know the reasons, I guess. The film is horrifying and heart-warming at the same time – the hatred on the one hand and the determination to survive and humanitarian efforts on the other. The frustration felt by the Peacekeepers at the red tape that stops them achieving much is well portrayed, as is the disbelief that no intervention is forthcoming despite the news coverage of the terrible events.

Overall the main reason why I think this fails to quite be an excellent film is purely that if you take away the fact that this is based on a true event, you are left with a very good film. Add the knowledge that this really happened and the emotional impact of the film more than triples, and you have a film that, while not quite achieving greatness, is nonetheless a film that everyone should see. You won’t be disappointed if you watch this, but don’t expect a cinematic classic.

Rating: 12A (UK) PG-13 (USA) – for disturbing images and brief strong language. (Apparently in the US, the film was re-rated on appeal.)

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