Not knowing I’d be writing regularly for
domlife.org until a week ago, I had not prepared a review of
Hotel Rwanda.. I saw it two months ago, but wrote nothing at
the time. Yet the experience remains with me, and it’s
too important a film to ignore.
As most people know by now, Hotel Rwanda is the
powerful story of the genocide in the African nation of Rwanda
in 1994. The Hutus seized power and massacred the Tutsi tribe,
as well as sympathetic Hutus. Approximately one million people
The film tells the story through the eyes of
a real life character, Paul Rusesabagina, (Don Cheadle), manager
of a luxury hotel patronized mainly by foreign visitors from
the West. Paul, his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and children
live a comfortable life when violence breaks out. Soon they
are living at the hotel, along with hundreds of others, when
the Westerners have fled.
Hotel Rwanda has been frequently compared to
Schindler’s List. Paul, like Oscar Schindler, does whatever
he can to protect the refugees at the hotel. Paul provides the
Hutu military leaders with money and liquor. At first, Paul
entertains them, and, as time goes on, begs for them to be saved.
Even though hundreds of thousands die, Paul manages the hundreds
at the hotel by his initiative, fast thinking, courage, and
sheer determination. It’s a remarkable feat in every respect.
not an easy film to watch. Early in the story, Paul and his
friends assume the Western powers will intervene and stop the
massacre. With the exception of sending in some UN Peacekeeping
troops, with orders not to shoot anyone, the West does little.
Hundreds of thousands die, and Western nations largely ignore
the situation. If this had happened decades ago, and was an
isolated instance, I could feel better. Yet, in our own time,
thousands die in the Sudan. What have we learned? How do we
react? How do I educate myself about the situation in African
nations? How do I seek to raise awareness in others? Am I too
consumed with issues closer to home to think about the sufferings
of people far away?
Another disturbing aspect of the film is the
systematic way the Hutus dehumanize the Tutsis by calling them
“cockroaches.” They dehumanized the other, as the
Nazis dehumanized the Jews. As we in our own country dehumanized
African Americans, buying and selling them as property. It’s
a lot easier to ignore, to blame, to deprive of rights, to torture
and kill, when they’re not really human, isn’t it?
I’m reminded of the ghastly photos and videos from the
Iraqi prisons as I write. As brothers and sisters in the Word,
we must remember the power of the words we use.
When I talk about movies like Hotel Rwanda, inevitably I encounter
those who tell me they don’t see movies like this. “They’re
too depressing.” “They’re too violent”
(actually Hotel Rwanda is rather restrained in its violence).
“I go to movies that entertain. I see enough bad news
on TV.” The power of Hotel Rwanda is that it draws the
viewer into the story. We see the atrocities through the terrified
eyes of Paul and Tatiana, who can scarcely believe what they
see. We are no longer distant observers. When Paul steps out
of a jeep off a foggy road and finds himself in a sea of bodies,
the viewer recoils in horror as he does. The visual images,
performances (Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo received much deserved
Oscar nominations), and screenplay take us where we would never
venture on our own.
Hotel Rwanda is one of those rare movies that
demands to be seen. It may still be showing by the time you
read this. If not, I’m sure it will be available on DVD
soon. It’s a great movie to watch as a community, parish,
high school, youth group, or campus ministry. It will disturb
you, but, at the same time, offer hope and inspiration. Thank
God that, even in the most hellish of times, there are heroes
like Paul and Tatiana, leading us into the way of peace.
Tom Condon, OP