True grit: <I>Hotel Rwanda</I> shows horror, heroics


Just when I'd settled on Saw as the best horror film of 2004, along came Hotel Rwanda with its depiction of real-life horror on a grand scale. The choice isn't as simple as Freddy vs. Jason, but there's room in the marketplace for both.

The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was reported widely but not deeply in the U.S., and Director Terry George creates a stomach-churning depiction of events without showing more than the PG-13 rating allows.

He told the audience at a screening that occupying Germans, early in the 20th century, divided the Rwandans into two groups. The lighter-skinned Tutsis, comprising about 20 percent of the population, became the ruling elite, lording it over the darker-skinned Hutu majority. Control of the country was passed from Germany to Belgium, which maintained the division. (The Germans are omitted from the brief summary in the film.)

When the Belgians left, the Hutus seized power in Rwanda and began retaliating against the Tutsis for the decades of oppression they'd suffered. The situation peaked in 1994 when, just as the United Nations thought they'd brokered a peace agreement, militant Hutu forces pushed for total annihilation of the Tutsis, nearly a million of whom were slaughtered, mostly with machetes and clubs.

As Schindler's List focused on one man's bravery in the Holocaust, Hotel Rwanda is about a man, a Hutu with a Tutsi wife, who sheltered over 1,000 people in the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali.

Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is a manager who's aware of the importance of "style" and of kissing up to the right people– officers and diplomats who drink at the hotel bar and leave with complimentary bottles in their briefcases.

The good news of the treaty is quickly countered with bad news of the assassination of the Hutu president and a call to "Cut the tall trees"– wipe out those people the Hutus consider "cockroaches."

Paul is home with his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and their three children when terror reaches their neighborhood. Tutsi neighbors come to their house because Paul is "the only Hutu they can trust."

Paul steals money to buy temporary safety for his extended family by bribing officials. He installs them in a couple of rooms at the hotel, which is owned by the Belgian Sabena Corporation. A Red Cross representative brings children from an orphanage ("They're targeting Tutsi children to wipe out the next generation"). His white boss finds an excuse to flee, leaving Paul in charge; and while he says the hotel "cannot be a refugee camp," he soon has hundreds of refugees on his hands.

Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte), who commands the U.N. forces, brings bad news– "We're here as peacekeepers, not peacemakers. We're not allowed to intervene"– and good news: reinforcements are on the way. When it turns out the additional troops are only coming to facilitate the evacuation of foreign nationals, it's one of the biggest of a series of disappointments that make things look increasingly bleak.

Paul's situation becomes ever more desperate, and he becomes ever more resourceful to meet the challenges and protect his family and 1264 others. Cheadle is excellent as an intelligent man in an emotional situation, a man of peace in the middle of a war.

Until he's evacuated, Joaquin Phoenix represents the U.S. viewpoint as a journalist who photographs the massacre but accurately predicts that when it's shown on television back home, "They'll say, 'Oh my God, how horrible!' and go on eating their dinner."

The saddest, most shocking thing about the Rwandan genocide is that minimal international intervention could have prevented it, but since it was blacks killing blacks the Western world didn't care. And lest the events of 10 years ago seem like ancient history, look at what's happening in the Sudan today.

Even if it weren't successful as entertainment, which it is, Hotel Rwanda would be commendable as an eye-opener.