Review of “Hotel Rwanda”

by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith & Michael Schreiber– February, 2005

 

“Hotel Rwanda.” Starring Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, and Nick Nolte; directed by Terry George.

 

“Hotel Rwanda” is a heartrending exposé of the consequences of the policies of the major Western powers toward the neo-colonial world. The European and

U.S. imperialists orchestrated the conditions for the 1994 genocidal slaughter in the Central African country of Rwanda—and then failed to provide any

protection or relief from it.

 

In a little over three months, some 800,000 Tutsis as well as Hutus who were opponents of the Rwandan government were murdered. Three million—over a third of the population—fled the country to escape death (or so they hoped).

 

The film tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, who, at the time, was the natty manager of Hotel Des Mille Collins, a four-star Belgian-owned hotel, in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The film is based somewhat loosely on Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book “We Regret to Inform You … [partial title].”

 

Don Cheadle provides a strong and entirely believable performance as Rusesabagina. Cheadle embodies Rusesabagina’s spirit and character, conveying them beyond the screen through the expressions on his face

and in his eyes.

 

The core of this harrowing film is a chronology of how Rusesabagina, using his skills as a businessman in a prestigious position—yet still a servant to his

guests—rescued 1300 Tutsi and Hutu by sequestering them in his hotel. The film not only illustrates the courage of one man unwittingly cast into a position he did not seek but also shows that people can hang on to their humanity when confronted with unhinged barbarity.

 

Reports from journalists stationed in Kigali, staying in the hotel, made the world aware of what was going on. The New York Times and The Washington Post published articles about “piles of corpses six feet high” and eyewitness accounts of the slaughter. One memorable article concerned the massacre of 1200 Rwandans who had gathered in a church, believing they were safe.

 

Early in “Hotel Rwanda,” Rusesabagina is driving home after a day’s work, listening to the radio to disturbing reports of Hutu militias patrolling the streets and flushing people from their homes. His wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and young children are fine, yet during dinner they hear shouts and gunshots

nearby. Rushing outside to the garden of their gated middle-class home, they watch a neighbor being dragged from his house and beaten by gun-wielding men in camouflage. Paul’s wife thinks the man must have done something wrong.

 

Back in the house, they discover one of their children is missing. A search of the grounds reveals him hiding beneath shrubs, unable to speak. Whatever horrific event he witnessed had rendered him mute.

 

Thus begins Paul Rusesabagina’s acts of heroism. He brings his family and some close relatives back to the hotel. Soon the hotel’s courtyard is full of Tutsis begging for help. All the while, the hotel continues serving its mostly white foreign guests, who are vaguely aware that something is going on “out there.”

 

But as long as their needs are met, their suites clean, the dining room open, the finest Scotch poured, everything is fine.

 

Terrified Rwandans phone relatives and friends from the hotel for help in getting out of the country. Less than 20 succeed, and Rusesabagina’s wife is one.

 

Still, while traveling to the airport, they face death when the UN truck, driven by UN Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, in charge of “peacekeeping” efforts (Nick Nolte in a sympathetic, understated role), is halted at a roadblock and Hutu militants attack.

 

At one point, German, Belgian, and French troops arrive at the hotel and there’s glimmer of hope, but Dallaire tells Rusesabagina that they’ve come to

evacuate only the European tourists and journalists.  In the pouring rain, bereft families, abandoned in the courtyard, watch as the Europeans climb into buses and leave.

 

Rusesabagina pleads with Gen. Dallaire to ask the UN for help, plaintively asking Dallaire if anyone cares what’s happening to them. Dallaire bluntly replies, “No. Because you’re dirt, you know that? The whole world thinks you’re dirt … worse than niggers.”

 

By the expression on Rusesabagina’s face you can see that he now knows that even in his relatively prestigious position he had been scammed all along by the white establishment. He was just a pawn in the game that the big powers were playing in his country.

 

Director Terry George, in tying the scope of the atrocities down to the role Rusesabagina played, gives “Hotel Rwanda” focus. But it doesn’t answer the

question of what prompted the Hutu death squads to engage in rampant carnage and to systematically wipe out a people with whom Hutus had once lived peaceably.

 

The colonial exploitation of Rwanda goes back to the late 19th century, when the European powers divided up the African continent in order to mine its rich

natural resources and to exploit its people in slavery-like conditions. Germany was Rwanda’s first colonial master, but after Germany’s defeat in the First World War, possession passed to Belgium, which already ruled the neighboring Congo.

 

Before the European occupation, Rwanda had enjoyed a rather flexible hierarchy, with a Tutsi king who dominated the predominately Hutu farmers. The term “Tutsi” apparently once meant a person rich in cattle, while “Hutu” meant a subordinate of a more powerful person. Eventually, “Tutsi” came to refer to the more privileged caste as a whole, while “Hutu” referred to the mass of people.

 

Social mobility and intermarriage tended to blur the differences between the ethnic groups. The Belgian authorities acted to deepen the divisions, however,

requiring all Rwandans to register themselves and their families according to “race,” which was then stamped onto the passports they had to carry.

 

Furthermore, Belgium decreed that Tutsis alone should be officials in the colonial government; Hutus were excluded from all power and from higher education.  Belgian academics justified this discrimination on a racist premise: The Tutsis, according to their pseudo-history, were descended from a North African “Ethiopid” people. Thus, the Tutsis were racially superior since they apparently had some “Caucasoid” (white) blood in them, as opposed to the “Bantu” Hutus from the south.

 

Today, the Tutsi (who today make up less than 15 percent of the Rwandan population), the Hutu, and the Pygmy Twa are generally considered by genealogists to belong to a single ethnic group, sharing a common

language and cultural traditions.

 

In September 1961, one year before Belgium granted independence, some 80 percent of Rwandans voted to replace the Tutsi monarchy with a republic. Throughout the 1960s, Hutu forces—helped militarily and politically by Belgium—drove over 300,000 Tutsis into exile while killing some 20,000 Tutsis in communal violence.

 

By 1989, a severe economic crisis and famine was brought on by a phenomenal drop in world coffee prices due to Western capitalist intervention. When Rwanda sought to borrow funds to keep afloat, the World Bank forced the country to accept severe fiscal measures, including devaluing its currency, which greatly worsened conditions for the poor.

 

The following year, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), based mainly on Tutsi refugees who had regrouped in Uganda as well as some dissident Hutus, mounted an armed campaign in the north of Rwanda, where they succeeded in occupying some territory. The RPF demanded that the Tutsi exiles be allowed to return to Rwanda and that the corrupt regime of Hutu strongman Habyarimana be replaced by a democratic government open to all ethnicities.

President Habyarimana and his cohorts used the RPF advance to portray the Tutsi population as “traitors,” hoping to rally Hutus behind his regime. In April

1991, after circulating a false account that Kigali had been attacked, the government arrested thousands of Tutsis and Hutu political opponents.

 

Massacres of Tutsis multiplied over the next few years, often perpetrated by Hutu militias with links to the Rwandan military, the National Police, and high government circles.

 

In spite of the massacres, the French government of “Socialist” Francois Mitterrand continued to supply the Rwandan military with arms, training, and over 1000 French troops—which joined in the battles against the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

 

The French government, in fact, covered up for its neocolonial allies in Rwanda, though its officials certainly knew of Rwandan government plans to

slaughter the Tutsis. French diplomats claimed that reports of massacres against Tutsis were “just rumors,” and praised the Habyarimana regime as “rather respectful of human rights.”

 

But France was not the only Western power that was culpable in the Rwandan genocide. Samantha Power, in an article that appeared in Atlantic On-Line, based on the de-classified Rwanda documents unearthed by a George Washington University group, wrote that, at the time, U.S. State Department diplomat Prudence Bushnell issued warnings about the increasing violence in that country. Rebuffed, she was told, “Look Pru, these people do this from time to time.”

 

At one point in “Hotel Rwanda,” we learn that a plane carrying President Habyarimana, along with Burundi President Cyprein Ntaryamira, a moderate Hutu, was shot down near Kigali. The Rwandan government blamed the Tutsis for the disaster, though some allege that Hutu dissidents or even the French government was behind it.

 

The assassination of Habyarimana provided the spark for the “extermination” of Tutsis to begin. Excerpts from Samantha Powers’s Atlantic On-Line article stated that Prudence Bushnell received a cable from Kigali’s U.S. Embassy warning of mass retaliatory killings. The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s sarcastic response: “Is it Hutu and Tutsi or Tutu and Hutusi?”

 

Canadian Gen. Dallaire’s recent book, Shake Hands with the Devil” (Carroll & Graf publishers, 2004), is his personal account of the genocide. He writes that a highly placed informant told his UN team prior to the slaughter that the Hutu youth militia were being trained and armed by ex-Army officers and instructed

to compile lists of Tutsis living in their neighborhoods.

 

Dallaire sent a cable to the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations notifying them of his intent to raid one of the weapons caches of the militia as a “deterrent” operation, but New York instructed him to cancel the operation. “At the time,” he writes (this was soon after the defeat and humiliation of U.S. troops in Somalia), “there was simply no appetite for any operation that might lead to ‘friendly’ casualties.”

 

In the film, Rusesabagina, his wife, and loyal hotel staff listen to a radio broadcast of an authentic official meeting between fumbling U.S. representatives tap-dancing around the decision whether or not to

label the Rwandan massacre “genocide,” in indecisive, robot-like voices. After several minutes, he shuts off the radio in disgust.

 

In July, the violence suddenly stops as the Hutu forces are thrown back by RFP troops. The final scenes of Rusesabagina and his family leaving a relocation

camp with others on a UN bus comes as a welcome relief; some children are reunited with parents and missing family members are located.

 

Now Paul and his family live in France with their niece and nephew, whose parents (his wife’s sister and brother-in-law) were never found.

 

“Hotel Rwanda” is a contender for an Academy Award in three categories. Unfortunately, the film is showing in very few theaters compared to the other major films of the season.                      

 

FACTS ABOUT RWANDA

 

Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, with about 8 million people in a territory about the size of Maryland. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with about 90 percent of the population engaged in (mainly subsistence) agriculture.

 

Though temperate and fertile, the country has few mineral resources and minimal industry. Primary foreign exchange earners are coffee and tea. The 1994 genocide decimated Rwanda’s fragile economic base, severely impoverished the population, particularly women, and eroded the country’s ability to attract private and external investment. The land faces environmental degradation through overgrazing, deforestation, and poaching of endangered animals.

 

The infant mortality rate is over 10 percent (101.68 deaths per 1000 live births. The average life expectancy is 39.18 years. The death rate has been made worse in recent years by AIDS (some 250,000 people are infected with HIV).

Fighting between Tutsi, Hutu, and other ethnic groups—and associated government and rebel armies—continues in the entire Great Lakes region of

Africa.