I went to the Cedar Lee last night and saw Hotel Rwanda. It was even heavier than I expected it to be and it definitely bore a bit of discussion with my friend and a bit more thought now. You can listen to an NPR interview with Don Cheadle here. Spoilers within.
This is essentially a film about Western guilt/White Man’s Burden. And it should be. Some background [the pieces are in the movie for you to put together]: The Rwandan Genocide is an indirect result of Belgian colonials dividing people based on height, skin-color and nose-breadth. [WTF?] The Tutsi were the taller, lighter-skinned, skinnier-nosed folk, and since they are closer to being white, the Belgians put them in charge. [WTF?] So when the Belgians gave up Rwanda as a colony they gave the power to the Hutu. [WTF?]
So that is a bit of background and the Wikipedia provides much more. The movie starts on the eve of the peace accord and assassination of the president that sparks the genocide. Paul Rusesabagina [Don Cheadle] is the highest ranking black African working at a Beligan hotel that caters to rich Westerners. He is both quietly effective and obsequious, always doing favors to influential people to store up favors for himself. Don Cheadle’s acting is great for the very tough part that he had. His character changes muchly, as anyone put under that much stress is certain to do. As for cinematography, it is standard for the most part, but some scenes, mostly crepuscular ones, blew my mind. A brief one is an establishing dissolve in front of the hotel, but the most powerful one is a foggy dawn along an abandoned road. When the shit hits the fan, the white folk bail, with glum looks and guilt-ridden hearts and none of that film shit matters anymore, only the horror.. We see some actual footage of the genocide [in long-shot, thankfully], and it is like getting clubbed in the stomach. There are many scenes in the movie that are like getting clubbed in the stomach, and hearing that it was toned down [from the NPR interview] makes me feel sick. The terror and unpredictability of the army and the Interahamwe militia force Paul’s character to stretch every favor that he is owed and use all his wiles to protect his family [initially] and then everyone at the hotel.
It is our [mine, the West’s fault] that these things came to pass to such an extent. Our ultimate indifference to the people of Africa is bluntly described by Colonel Oliver [Nick Nolte] when he self-hatingly explains the UN’s rationale as to why he is not permitted to evacuate the refugees in the hotel by saying to Paul “You aren’t even a nigger. You’re an African.” When Jack [Joaquin Phoenix], an American journalist, is questioned by Paul in regard to aid he says [I’m paraphrasing] “People will look at the footage and say ‘That’s terrible’ and go back to eating their dinner.” After making such effective points, I was really brought down by the end of the film when a blonde-haired blue-eyed Red Cross worker, Madame Archer [Cara Seymour], pretty much serves to assuage at least part of the guilt we are by now feeling; thereby making it palatable and letting us behave exactly as Jack said we would. We see the film, say “That’s terrible” and then can go home and forget about it, perhaps this time because it happened ten years ago. Damn us for always trying to give movies uplifting endings; especially when we shouldn’t be uplifted at all.
This film is out at an appropriate time, considering the effects of the recent tsunami. While the political and moral effects of the Rwandan genocide were/are much harsher, and the loss of life more extreme; there is still a need for some good acts of charity and social justice on our parts. I don’t particularly see this as a White Man’s Burden in the exact sense of the phrase, because even if the West isn’t directly responsible for whatever problems occur, we as people always have a responsibility to do what we can to fight suffering and injustice whenever we see it. Obviously this movie got me a bit fired up; a good thing. I just wish that the ending hadn’t been such a copout.