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"The most significant event of the year."
"Cheadle resonates with diplomatic flair."
"Timely, relevant, and magnanimous."
Hotel Rwanda  

Cast

Paul Rusesabagina: Don Cheadle
Tatiana: Sophie Okonedo
Colonel Oliver: Nick Nolte
Jack: Joaquin Phoenix
Review December 2004

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...(and) we will squash the infestation.

ITLM Hutu power radio

In the spring of 1994, one million people were brutally murdered in Rwanda in a vicious act of racial cleansing while the rest of the world sat, unaware and indifferent. Through the use of hateful propaganda and radio, Rwandans were instructed to seek out and kill their neighbors, fellow Rwandans. And the aftermath can only be described as a tragedy of holocaust proportions. In "Hotel Rwanda," we get a sense of the animosity, the helplessness, and yet, are encouraged by the prevailing human spirit. This is the extraordinary story of one man, who risked everything to save over a thousand lives in the midst of an unimaginable terror. Starring Don Cheadle as hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, the film is a deeply personal portrait of a real African hero. It focuses on his acts of courage and grace, his love of family, his fear of death, and ultimately, his duty to his fellow countrymen. Above all, the film raises important questions about global responsibility and fundamental human rights. Humbling and heartbreaking, it's easy to see why "Hotel Rwanda" is the most significant event of the year.

As the hotel manager of the exclusive Hotel Des Milles Collines, Paul Rusesabagina is extremely business savvy. Entertaining some of the region's most prominent diplomats, generals, and guests, Paul has become an expert in customer satisfaction and style. He knows the importance of a well-placed bribe and the protection a network of powerful allies can provide. But he also hopes he never has to ask a favor. A Hutu married to a Tutsi, Paul cherishes his simple and quiet family life. But that peaceful existence changes dramatically when Rwanda begins to unravel. Once controlled by Belgium, which separated Rwanda into two distinct tribal groups (Tutsi and Hutu), the country had a Tutsi majority. But that was back in the colonial days. And now, many years later, the boundaries have been inexplicably crossed as the Hutu reign supreme, exacting revenge on all Tutsi and those who favor them. And while Paul is safe as Hutu, his wife is in danger as Tutsi.

Once the genocide begins, Americans and Europeans are flown out of the country while the native Rwandans are left to fend for themselves. Although the United Nations is present, the armed officers are unable to intervene or stop the massacre without orders from a higher authority. In the meantime, Paul remains steadfast, unwilling to pull strings or help anyone outside of his immediate family. But gradually, as the situation in Kigali escalates and the hotel becomes a convenient refugee camp, Paul becomes deeply entrenched. His conscience weighs heavily and he relents, using his connections to secure food and water, provide security at the hotel's gates, and even arranging for an armed transport to move women and children to safety across enemy lines. Will his efforts be enough? Such action puts his life in danger, aiding and sheltering Tutsi. And despite his good intent, he soon realizes that he will need every ounce of luck, resourcefulness, and rationale to survive and save the lives of those closest to him.

The Rwandan conflict of the early 90s was one of the most horrific, bloody periods in African history. In roughly 100 days time, approximately one million people were killed, filling the streets of the capital city (Kigali) with blood. But the most damning tragedy of all is that it could have been prevented. Although the United Nations was present, they were ordered to merely keep the peace, not to take action and stop the violence. Frustrated by his inability to act, Colonel Oliver tells Rusesabagina: "We're here as peace keepers, not peace makers." Further compounding the United Nations' inability to act were misleading reports from international news agencies. Reporting "tribal conflict" in a third world nation, the uprising received very little attention and few world leaders were informed. With no international coalition, no international intervention, and no foreign aid, Rwanda was left all alone.

Written and directed by Terry George, "Hotel Rwanda" succeeds in depicting the violent, unstable political climate in Rwanda without explicit visuals or extensive pretext. And it does this with great character building. Narrowing the scope of events from macro to micro, George masks the brutality and violent images of the slaughter outside the hotel gates to focus on Rusesabagina's transformation from simple family man to humanitarian. It's an important approach, one that allows audiences to learn about the situation through Paul's experiences instead of the other way around. Even more importantly, it demonstrates an understanding of thriller 101, which states that the most frightening things are those that lie off camera. When combined with expert character building or when audiences empathize with the characters on screen, the psychological aspects of terror are heightened to terrifyingly real levels.

On the flip side, this is a film about survival, human instinct, and the presence of compassion in the most impossible of times. Paul Rusesabagina is a good, simple family man who understands his place in the world, but through acts of bravery and resourcefulness, becomes an even better man. As manager of the Hotel Des Milles Collines, a four star African oasis, Paul has an uncanny understanding of style and a pleasant voice. He knows the value of a Cohiba cigar is worth more than 10,000 francs, that a bottle of scotch or a crate of beer in the right hands will return its weight tenfold, and that it's always important to maintain an aura of respectability even in times of absolute fear and distress. That his wife is able to tap into his inner strength is a testament of their love. And it's because of Paul's skill and ingenuity, the manipulation of perception, and his level headedness, that people survive.

Over the years, Don Cheadle has demonstrated versatility and sophistication in a variety of supporting roles ranging from the psychotic best friend in "Devil in a Blue Dress" (which earned him an Academy nomination) to a subtly tormented Sammy Davis, Jr. in "The Rat Pack" or even a rough and tough DEA agent in Steven Soderbergh's drug war epic, "Traffic." No matter the role, Cheadle wins you with his charisma and his cool. And it's no surprise that in "Hotel Rwanda," in a leading role, Cheadle resonates with diplomatic flair. Most impressively, watch how carefully he masks Paul's feelings of insecurity and despair until finally erupting in a tearful impasse. It's terrific scenes like these that force you to think about your own reaction in like circumstances. Additionally, there are two low-profile performances of note. As Rusesabagina's wife Tatiana, Sophie Okenedo quietly exudes tenderness and resolve in protecting loved ones. And Nick Nolte, as Colonel Oliver, reveals more than grizzled complacency. His sympathy and willingness to bend the rules for Paul are entirely genuine.

Purposeful and powerful, the film raises many valid questions without obvious answers. Why did the genocide happen in the first place? How could it transpire so quickly? And what provoked such extreme behavior? Though there are no easy answers, great writing helps communicate the complexity of Rwanda's troubled past in simple terms. For instance, in a key scene between Paul and Jack, you learn about the Belgian occupation and influence, the barbaric practices, and above all, the absurdity and the insignificance of the attitudes in a modern context. Additionally, the film makes a stunning conclusion - that there is a direct connection between heinous acts of mob violence and the spoken word. Heard across the airwaves in Rwanda, RTLM radio spewed hate and murderous propaganda: "What are you waiting for? The tombs are empty. Take up your machetes and hack your enemies to pieces." Calling upon the Hutu majority to destroy the Tutsi minority, radio helped create a network of transmitters, broadcasting the positions of freedom fighters and those opposed to the regime. And it's an essential character in "Hotel Rwanda," from the opening monologue to the final rescue of hotel refugees.

A few years after the massacre, Paul Rusesabagina and his family left Rwanda for opportunities in Belgium. No longer a hotel manager, Rusesabagina started his own heavy-duty transport company, where he works today. But his story, as depicted in "Hotel Rwanda" speaks volumes about the human spirit, the love of family and neighbors, and the existence of hope in unthinkable circumstances. It's a personal journey, not a horrific one. And it's brought to life with poise, passion, and reverence by Terry George and Don Cheadle. Very rarely will you find a film that transcends its medium, communicating a story and message that are so timely, relevant, and magnanimous. But "Hotel Rwanda" is precisely that kind of picture.



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