About midway through Hotel Rwanda, as the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis escalates in the Rwandan capital of Kigali in the summer of 1994, Western reporters capture scenes of genocide on tape. A jubilant Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who has been sheltering Tutsis in a luxury hotel frequented by Westerners, assumes the broadcast of such images will prompt immediate Western intervention. A skeptical Western reporter expresses doubt and, in response to Paul’s dumbfounded question, “How can they see that and not intervene?,” opines that viewers will see the footage, say “Isn’t that horrible,” and go on with their dinners. Instead of bludgeoning its audience with guilt, Hotel Rwanda manages to appeal to our sense of shame over the failures of those who could have done more, even as the film instructs and edifies.
Hotel Rwanda is not only the story of the way Western powers sat on the sidelines during what Samantha Power in her excellent book A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide calls “the fastest and most efficient killing spree of the 20th century”; in one-hundred days, the Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis. It is also the story of the way Western powers have come to fear the use of the term “genocide” as much as, or even more than, the thing itself. At a State Department press conference, the U.S. spokeswoman admits that “acts of genocide” are occurring in Rwanda, but hedges on calling it genocide. In impeccable State Department syntax, she explains, “there is a formulation that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of.” In a taunting ironic note, a framed cover of Time magazine proclaiming President Clinton “Man of the Year” hangs on the wall of the hotel Mille Collines.
Even more than this, Hotel Rwanda is the true story of a heroic individual, Rusesabagina, a Hutu and manager of the Mille Collines, a Belgian-owned luxury hotel in Kigali. Along with his Tutsi wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and their children, Paul takes refuge in the hotel, opens it to Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and manages, by business acumen and simple bribery, to save 1,200 lives.
As a hotel manager, Paul has access to lots of desirable food and drink, which he doles out to important Hutus, Tutsis, and foreigners. Perhaps because his situation is so comfortable and he gets along so amicably with everyone, he remains in denial over the proclaimed threats of violence. Even when one of his Tutsi neighbors is beaten and carried off, he remains uninvolved, telling his grieving wife, “There’s nothing we can do.” Soon, however, his family and friends are taken into custody and he is forced to bargain for their lives. Then friends and colleagues begin bringing refugees, including large numbers of orphans, to his hotel for safe harbor.
In Paul’s initial denial, his use of business connections and skills, and his success, there are many similarities to Oscar Schindler, whose WWII activities on behalf of Jews is memorialized in Spielberg’s superb Schindler’s List. It is striking in both cases how heroism emerges from the life of an ordinary businessman who could have increased his profit and insured his own safety by cooperating, rather than resisting, the forces of genocide. Paul is a reluctant hero, an ordinary man who simply cannot bring himself to look the other way or think only of himself in the face of vicious attacks on the innocent. Some might raise the same objection to Hotel Rwanda that has been raised against Schindler’s List–namely, that it lets viewers off too easily by allowing us to identify with the hero, who, after some initial doubts, does the right thing. Thus it allows us to avoid confronting the painful and frightening possibility that had we been in the same circumstance we might have been powerfully tempted to cooperate with, or at least to avoid confronting, the Nazis or in this case the Hutus.
Of course, the focus on Paul and his family has advantages: It allows the audience access to the horror through a sympathetic family, a family that crosses the Hutu-Tutsi divide and possesses much in the way of Western sensitivities. The decision not to immerse viewers in the slaughter is also one of the film’s virtues. The film does finally reach a cascade of violence near the end, but until then it concentrates on the human story and shows the genocide only indirectly. Especially effective is the film’s depiction of the murderous hatred lurking in the hearts of those one previously trusted. When Paul asks a business associate who is passionately committed to the genocide, “You don’t really believe you can kill them all?,” the man responds grimly, “Why not? We’ve killed half of them already.”
The most ghastly scene in the film occurs as Paul and a friend are returning to the hotel by car along a road shrouded in heavy fog. The ride suddenly becomes extremely bumpy and Paul accuses the driver of having lost the path. When they exit the car, they immediately trip over piles of slain bodies of men, women, and children. The killing of the Tutsi children was merciless and massive, part of a plan to “wipe out the next generation.”
So focused is the film on its central story line that we gain little sense of the historical and political background, which dates to the Belgian occupation of the territory, an occupation that favored the minority Tutsis. (On this and other issues, Power’s book is essential reading.) When the Belgians pulled out, the Hutu majority took over and found itself in a position to exercise power over a previously ascendant minority population. What the film makes clear is the peculiar organizational shape of the Rwandan massacre. This is not a top-down genocide, not even a well-orchestrated plan. It is rather a mass bloodfest arising from innumerable local points, fomented by Hutu Power Radio, over which a broadcaster declaims against the Tutsi “cockroaches” and announces the start of killing with the words, “Cut down the tall trees.”
As U.N. protection continues to crumble, Paul calls on the Belgian hotel-management team for help. When they hesitate, he explains that soon the Hutus will take over the hotel and kill them all. Paul pauses and then calmly begins thanking them for the opportunity to work for them. Rather than lashing out against those who hesitate to help, Paul always attempts to shame them into doing what they ought to do. In this case, shame works and when Paul is asked whom they need to call to stop the invasion of the hotel, he states, “The French. They supply the Hutus.”
The head of the U.N. peacekeeping team, a well-meaning but befuddled Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), lays the blame for Western inaction on racism. Oliver tells Paul, “They think you’re dirt… You’re not even a n***er, you’re an African.” It now seems clear that, as Samantha Power shows, at least in the case of American inactivity, the Clinton administration most feared the still-painful memory of our retreat from Somalia. One of the problems with the film’s depiction of the utter ineptitude of the U.N. is that it contributes to the despairing sense that nothing, short of full-scale Western military intervention, could have had much effect. And there are indeed important prudential questions here, as in other cases of genocide, concerning what can reasonably be done by external powers. Samantha Power argues that, at least in the case of Rwanda, a number of small moves, for instance finding a way to put Hutu Power radio out of business, might have made a big difference in curtailing the genocide.
With Hotel Rwanda, last summer’s Osama (a harrowing and captivating tale of a girl’s attempt to secure a job to assist her family by disguising herself as a male under the ruthless Taliban regime in Afghanistan), and the just-released Moolaade (a deeply critical look at the practice of female circumcision in Africa), a number of current films about non-Western society manage to captivate, inspire, and educate. These films also reveal the moral poverty and political impotence of certain still-trendy proclamations of multiculturalism. Instead of railing against imperialism, these films face squarely the moral and political deficiencies inherent in a number of non-Western cultures and regimes. Even as they provide Americans with an introduction to cultures in many ways quite alien to our own, these films appeal to and refine a moral sensibility that largely transcends the specificity of culture.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.