Sunday, May 01, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

The power of a movie is measured by how much it moves you into confronting your own values and beliefs, faith and convictions.

The film, Hotel Rwanda, focuses on a sad and piercing event when a few selfish people, trying to protect their own interests, fabricate stories to incite a long, deep hatred by their Hutu compatriots to wage a genocidal campaign against the Tutsi minority.

The film, however, rightfully emphasizes the inherent goodness in every person as it tells us of one man’s courageous efforts, using all practicable means, to protect his family and people he don’t know from the hands of the Hutu militia bent on annihilating them.

Paul Rusasubagena (Don Cheadle) is such a man. And Hotel Rwanda is his story – a true story.

The day the Hutu President signs the peace accord between his government and the Tutsi rebels; the day majority of Rwandan people come out rejoicing, also marks the beginning of days when Rwanda plunges into hell - a living hell that, in only three months, will kill almost a million people, and almost wipe out the entire Tutsi population.

Paul works as a general manager of the only five-star hotel in the capital city of Kigali. In the course of his dealings with the corrupt system he has mastered the art of gentle bribery. He can count on the help of an Army General anytime he wants to. He is a shrewd man. And he has very good reasons why he seeks the patronage of the powerful.

He is a Hutu and a member of the ruling class. His wife, unfortunately, is a Tutsi.

On the fateful day when the hostilities erupt, he glimpses first hand what he has dreaded all his life: His wife along with the rest of the Tutsis in his neighborhood are rounded by the police and threatened to be killed. Paul bargains by bribing the police with a handful of French francs. The police wavers but warns them that he will come back later and kill them all.

He moves his family and his neighbors to his hotel where the United Nations contingent and a handful of foreign nationals (calm and seemingly oblivious to the massacres occurring outside the hotel grounds) are still staying.

Soon these nationals are evacuated by their home countries when the situation has turned for the worse. And the United Nations, acting on the false report of the ruling Hutu government decides to limit their presence and takes a hands-off policy towards the conflict.

Paul then resorts to his own devises - calling their hotel headquarters, asking his staff to call former hotel guests for help (and if they need to, impress on their friends the precariousness of the situation and that the moment they hung up the phone could mean death for them.)

The story is so riveting that I am having a hard time distinguishing the movie from the real events it depicts. The fact that i am almost telling the entire story shall not diminish the power of this movie when one finally sees it. And I mean it.

Don Cheadle inhabits his character with a pained look in his eyes, a man putting up a brave face but is being consumed by fear and helplessness. He is simply magnificent! Cheadle's awesome display of powerhouse acting is mastefully showcased on the morning Paul breaks down at the hotel locker after they discover the pile of bodies scattered all over a road. The viewer can almost see the real Paul slowly being engulfed in sheer powerlessness.

And the poignant music by Wyclef Jean adds loving dedication to the Tutsi children who will grow up without a father, a mother, a brother, or a sister.

Days after watching this Terry George’s haunting and wrenching drama, I still find myself reflecting every now and then about the events that transpired during those fateful days of April 1994. I have even gotten into reading Rwandan history – how the tribes came into being; how the Tutsis, the Hutus and the Twas found themselves together in one country. What I learned is an interesting history not unlike any of its African neighbors. The European colonizer’s cultural and ethnical ignorance of the region contributed to the marked tribal rivalries that eventually escalated into a fierce and bloody conflict.

And the seeming indifference of the West at the time can also be explained by the debacle the UN faced when they tried to intervene in the earlier Somalian conflict (dramatized in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down).

But despite all these hindsight thoughts, I still can’t fathom how a man can tap such blind fury and commit such heinous acts. And when they say never again, do the Rwandans say this with conviction in their hearts? What about the next generation of Tutsi children? Who will educate them objectively about this event that killed nearly 80% of their people? Questions, questions…

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