Movie Review - Hotel Rwanda

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Terry George
United Artists
on appeal for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language

Paul Rusesabagina was manager of the four-star Hôtel des Mille Collines—hobnobbing with foreign emissaries, recommending scotch and lobster to Rwandan generals, meeting the demands of style almost effortlessly. Then Hutu radicals came after his wife and children with machine guns and machetes. And the Hôtel des Mille Collines suddenly became the only hiding place in Rwanda’s capital.

That happened in real life. Paul saved more than a thousand people, most of whom he’d never even met, in the Mille Collines, by throwing in his lot with the hunted Tutsi minority—by playing politics, by waking up in the morning with a pistol to his head, by confronting a bloody massacre almost single-handedly. That’s fact. That’s history. So why didn’t they make Hotel Rwanda a documentary? It was for the same reason they didn’t make it into another set of video clips and sound bites for the evening news, like the ones that played in people’s living rooms all around the world in 1994, while Europe, North America and the U.N. folded their arms and debated whether “genocide” was too strong a word to describe the thousands of mutilated Tutsi bodies lying in the middle of Rwandan streets. One hundred days—almost a million deaths. Paul Rusesabagina and the fugitives at the Mille Collines were not among them.

Why not a documentary? Because this story needs to grab your emotions.

Violent and Intense Content:
For being a movie about one of the most brutal genocides of the twentieth century, Hotel Rwanda shows remarkable discretion in the choice of imagery. Blood is minimal—present, but usually far enough away from the camera that the color red is all the gore that’s really visible. Dead bodies are seen, but these scenes are more emotionally intense than visually graphic. Machete blows are distant, brief or off screen. With the violence in Hotel Rwanda, the question isn’t whether you can handle seeing what happened back in 1994. You don’t really see it. The question is whether you can handle experiencing the emotional reaction you’re being set up for.

Paul Rusesabagina and his family—even his young children—are severely traumatized at different points throughout the movie. The little boy is found covered in someone else’s blood, in extreme physical and mental shock. Paul’s wife Tatiana and the children are ambushed and repeatedly threatened with blades and machine guns while people around them are chopped or shot to death. Paul unexpectedly encounters a field of genocide victims, and is so shaken by the sight that he suffers a panic attack and can’t even dress himself without breaking down. The point of Hotel Rwanda is to give you a taste of what these survivors went through.

The hotel is bombed and invaded by Hutu rioters. Men and women are beaten. A man tells his family to commit suicide rather than fall under the machete. A Red Cross worker describes the murder of Tutsi children.

Offensive language wasn’t necessary to get Hotel Rwanda its PG-13, but it’s here nonetheless. Reference points are available for all of the objectionable language*.

Someone uses “Jesus Christ” as a frustrated exclamation. God’s name is definitely abused twice, with a couple of iffy (that is, possibly sincere) references. Hell is mentioned out of context twice, and damnation once. “Sh-t” is used half a dozen times, “a--” and “f---ing” once each, with slang term “fr--king” tossed in once. “N-gger” also occurs once.

Sexual Content:
A couple of scenes briefly feature women in revealing swimsuits. In a nighttime scene, captured Tutsi prostitutes stand behind barbed wire in the shadows, some in scanty undergarments, some in nothing at all. Reference points for these segments are available*.

Paul and his wife are seen in bed together, fully clothed, a few times—once embracing, but in a comforting rather than sensual way. There are occasional, usually light, kisses between the unmarried actor and actress. Paul is seen shirtless in a short, non-sensual segment.

A man on staff at the Mille Collines takes over the presidential suite of the hotel and is seen at the door of the suite with a woman—presumably a hotel guest—in the background, both of them in robes. Another man tells an attractive woman he’d just met, “I’d like to finish this conversation,” and gives her his hotel room number.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
Paul orders large quantities of beer for the hotel, and is shown serving wine and scotch several times, partaking of them himself, though not to excess. A side character is seen drunk, in a humorless setting. A song about African beer is briefly featured in the soundtrack.

Characters are seen smoking cigars.

None of Hotel Rwanda’s worldview issues are major, and many of them are resolved in the course of the movie. Paul’s conviction that “family is all that matters,” and that he should turn away persecuted neighbors, is toppled when he is presented with real life-and-death choices. His implicit trust in the U.N.’s ability to maintain national peace and international harmony, is shattered by the U.N.’s faithlessness. The rashness of a suicide order is revealed later on.

After being captured and nearly killed by the Hutus, when Paul suddenly chose to remain behind, Paul’s wife Tatiana—in a moment of emotional breakdown—tries to give Paul back her wedding ring. She later (in a calmer frame of mind) tells him that leaving her “was not your decision to make. We make our decisions together.”

Paul’s bold but desperate statement to a threatening Hutu, “I would pay you to shoot my family,” and his request (probably not meant to be taken seriously) for that man to shoot him as well, is actually a reference to the choice of the wealthier genocide victims—like Tatiana’s father, in real life—to pay their murderers to kill them quickly, rather than torture them to death over a period of several hours, but this is not as clear from the movie.

Paul’s clear use of deceit to save the lives of the Tutsi refugees in the Mille Collines may be offensive to some viewers. A side character wishes Paul good luck.

Hotel Rwanda is supposed to be grabbing your emotions—not so that you can have your adrenaline high for the week, nor even for the more noble reason of helping you understand Paul Rusesabagina’s heroism. The movie is meant to show you what genocide looks like when it steps out from behind the closed doors of a prison camp somewhere in Europe. Now, why would moviemakers want to do that? Hotel Rwanda, made in 2004, opens with a message from Don Cheadle, the actor who played Paul Rusesabagina, appealing for help for the refugees from the genocide in Sudan, two countries north of Rwanda. Video clips and sound bites flashed through people’s living rooms all over again, and they still accomplished next to nothing. The fact is, it’s hard to get your mind around the concept of something as big as genocide until something narrows the gap between them and you—between their emotions and yours.

Paul Rusesabagina’s story is worth seeing in living color, if you are up for the emotional ride (which means this movie isn’t recommended for viewers under the age of fifteen).

And if Hotel Rwanda makes you want to do something to stop the devastation of civil war, genocide and religious persecution (and it will), then follow a second, even higher recommendation, and take a look at the independent Christian crisis-relief organization, Persecution Project Foundation.

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