Thursday, January 06, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

I just returned from a special screening of Hotel Rwanda. It was special not just because the writer was there, a talented young documentarian named Keir Pearson. And not just because co-writer and director Terry George, who previously wrote “In the Name of the Father,” among several other notable works, was there. What made this screening special was the film’s star, and I’m not talking about Don Cheadle, despite his absolutely brilliant performance.

What made this so special was the presence of the hero on which the film is based, Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero who saved over a thousand lives as the hotel manager of Hotel Mille Collines, a Belgian-owned resort in Kigali, Rwanda.

The film itself is an incredible story of a man whose basic human decency and efficiency as an excellent manager enabled him to do something all of Western “civilization” (and the quotes are well-deserved) could not - save the lives of Rwandans even as others were trying to divide them into Hutus and Tutsis. To him, as he explained after the film, there was no difference. They are all one people. And indeed they were, until the Belgians came in and used a divide and conquer strategy to separate and elevate the richer, lighter-skinned people, which they named Tutsis, from the darker, smaller people they called Hutus. But in reality of course, the split was always artificial.

Rusesabagina spoke simply yet eloquently when asked how he found the “courage” to do what he did, housing in his abandoned hotel not only the threatened Tutsis but many moderate Hutus who were also threatened with slaughter. He said it wasn’t a matter of courage - he was too busy to be afraid. But I saw something else. Here was a man to whom decency was so innate, so integral, that he could not fathom why others did not share that and act as he did. He said he was a different man since those events in that his eyes were opened. Up until then, he had been somewhat of a happy-go-lucky guy who enjoyed having a drink and hobnobbing with people from all parts of society. But this became a defining moment, when people he had formerly considered friends would not condemn the butchery happening before his eyes. He said it wasn’t so much that he changed, but that others changed and he remained the same as he had always been.

Key to the change was a potent hate-radio station which broadcast messages telling the Hutus to rise up and kill the Tutsis. It was a sophisticated operation, to be sure, in that the people of Rwanda were too poor to buy newspapers. They listened instead to the cheapest little hand-held transistor radios, to the single station, and got their news from that. When you see the film, and you must see this film, you’ll realize the radio station is a major player in the events that unfold.

Director Terry George spoke to that in the Q&A that followed the screening, saying there was talk at one point of bombing the station, since it was to a large degree the single biggest factor in the genocide. But some State Department lawyer said this could be looked upon as a freedom of the press issue, and so the station was left to incite people not simply to violence, but to genocide to the tune of nearly a million people in 100 days.

The film tells two very important stories. One is the story of what one capable, decent person can do. He simply worked every angle, plied every bribe, worked every contact, and did all anyone could possibly due to save all the people who had come to him for shelter.

The second story, however, is far more damning. It is the story of how the white races of the world pulled out, looked away, and by their silence condoned the horrible slaughter.

Paul asked that we see the message in the film, and that those who see the film become messengers of that message. Terry George and Paul both reminded us that this is all happening again, in Darfour. Terry said that the tsunami’s second wave is washing over Africa now, because as the media and charities turn all eyes to the tragedy in the Indian ocean by a natural disaster, the preventable, human disaster occurring in the Sudan, the Congo, and other places in Africa continues.

The film itself is entirely interesting, engaging, at moments humorous, and at moments heartbreaking. But it is also the inspiring tale of a simple, decent man just being himself and refusing to turn his back on the people who came to depend on him. He is not painted as larger than life, but rather, as the best any of us can be, if we only keep true to what we know, what we believe. The film made no reference to any religion, save a cross around Paul’s wife’s neck which plays a key part in the film, but not because of the religion represented. The message was clearly about the need to simply be human, to maintain compassion for others, to just do the right thing and not to act simply out of self-interest, but in the interests of as many as possible.

For those like myself who hate to see blood and gore, fear not. As horrible as this tale is, the horror is to a large degree suggested, rather than enacted, in the film. George talked about fighting the ratings board to get a PG rating, and how he had to remind them over and over that what they thought they saw is not really what they saw. The real horror lies in what actually happened, not in what appears on film.

This is a powerfully moving yet wholly inspirational film. I hope all will see it and remember. George said they took great pains to remain as true to history as possible, and that about 90% of what you see is exactly what happened. The parts that are ‘fictionalized’ are not the big scenes, but smaller scenes. One event really happened, but at a later time than shown in the timeframe of the film. Another event really happened, but happened to a different character than the one shown. So the reality of the film is very close to the truth. George talked about how he felt a responsibility to history since people read so little nowadays, and said, for Americans, it’s likely this film will be the most they ever learn about Rwanda and what happened there, and they realized from the start the importance of carrying that burden as honestly as possible.

After the film, I shook George’s hand, and went up to Paul and gave him a hug, and said something that didn’t come out quite as I wanted, but oh well. I said to him, through my tears, that I was thrilled that he had done what he did. He returned the hug, and I know he was moved as well. I wondered what it must be like, to have perhaps the high point and low point of his life coincide in this single film. I also wondered at the irony of his living in Brussels now, in the very country so responsible for the division that led to the genocide he had witnessed. Above all, I wonder what I now will do with this information, and what you will do when you too take in this film and take on the responsibility of being a witness to this tragic part of our recent past. I hope we will all take some positive action as a result of this film.


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