March 14, 2005
Hotel Rwanda directed by Terry George
A movie review by Gregg Krech
"Man's inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad. It is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good."
- Dr. Martin Luther King
Eleven years ago the West ignored pleas for help from this remote, relatively unknown African country. The result was a horrific genocide of more than 800,000 men, women and children, most of which took place within a 100 day window of time. But in the midst of unthinkable tragedy, heroes are born and Hotel Rwanda is the story of one of those heroes, Paul Rusesabagina, the House Manager at a luxurious four star Belgian-owned hotel which suddenly became an oasis of refuge for those whose other options were either suicide or death by machete.
Several stories unfold throughout the movie, the most obvious one being a media-driven massacre incited and coordinated by members of the ruling Hutus against the Tutsis. Early in the movie, tensions build between the ruling Hutu party and Tutsi rebel forces, but a sense of relief arrives with the signing of a U.N. brokered peace treaty. However, the downing of the Rwandan President's plane, and his death, throws the situation into chaos. As extremists take over the government and the media, Hutu residents are agitated and begin to organize into bands of militias whose only purpose is the wanton murder of Tutsis. The U.N., who has a peacekeeping force, quickly moves to evacuate all the foreign nationals and, once they are safely out of the country, withdraws nearly all its peacekeepers, abandoning the defenseless Tutsis to maniacal crowds of machete-wielding Hutus.
The tension and violence in the movie make it harder to see the more subtle story –- the tale of an ordinary, common human being who rises to the occasion as he is transformed in the midst of fear and tragedy into a hero who saves the lives of more than 1,200 men, women and children. Early in the movie we watch Paul, who has achieved success through charm, wit and the mastery of bribery in a system built on corruption. When he needs a favor, he simply summons up the proper amount of liquor or money and gets what he needs. As the genocide begins, he can't quite accept that "business as usual" is over. The magnitude of Paul's transformation is revealed in his beginnings. Although friendly and considerate, he's mostly concerned about himself and his own family (a wife and two children). He shows little interest in politics. He worries. He trembles with fear. He denies reality. In short, he is human and unspectacular.
But somehow he rises to heroism out of necessity. When the Belgian Hotel Manager evacuates the country, Paul is left in charge of the hotel. Suddenly, children from orphanages are being dropped at his doorstep. Hundreds of surviving Tutsis are showing up at the gates with nowhere left to go. One of Paul's assets is his cleverness, but being clever isn't a true virtue. It regularly appears in the characters of the finest criminals and most evil dictators. Paul, however, makes cleverness a tool in the service of compassion.
We're faced with two contrasting tales –- the horrific mass murder of innocent people, fueled by hatred, that seems to be a testament to the existence of evil; and the transformation of an ordinary, fearful human being into a hero who risks his own life to save others. The movie leaves you shocked, yet somehow inspired.
If Paul's heroism inspires us, we cannot help but be haunted by the failure of the rest of the world as it stood by and watched, or ignored, the plight of nearly a million people who cried out for help. Shortly after the genocide began, a human rights activist, Monique Mujawamariya, was smuggled out of Rwanda and arrived in the U.S. to plead for the lives of her people. She was greeted with sympathy and diplomatic niceties by the State Department, but not a finger was lifted by the U.S. government to do something about the situation.
In the movie, there is a poignant moment where an American journalist films the gruesome murder of Tutsis within a mile of the hotel. As Paul watches the footage and realizes it will be broadcast on international news he is hopeful that it will generate a humanitarian response. But the journalist stares sadly into his weary eyes and says that if Westerners learn what is happening, "they'll say ‘Oh my God, that's terrible' and they'll go on eating their dinners."
This film is a testimony to what a film can do. You may have vague memories of the Rwandan genocide eleven years ago, but once you see this film the story will pierce your heart in a way that is unforgettable. Yet how many people will be willing to see this film? A decade ago we ignored the reality of this tragic event so will we now ignore the replaying of history as well? I saw the film at 9pm on a Saturday night and the theater was half-empty. We ponder the Nazi-perpetrated holocaust, but we too easily forget the Armenians and the Cambodians. The Rwandan genocide is only a decade past and now we're faced with the tragic situation in Darfur. In ten years will we be reviewing "Hotel Darfur?" What will it take for the world to learn to prevent such tragedies? What will it take for us to step forward, sacrifice some of our comfort and tend to the suffering of our fellow man?
Gregg Krech is the executive director of ToDo Institute and author of the award-winning Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection.
For video footage and interviews regarding the Rwandan genocide, see The Ghosts of Rwanda (Frontline, PBS): http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/video/
"Even in the darkest times in our history, people of extraordinary character have lived among us, showing us a way out of the deplorable cycle of hatred and aggression. They exist this very day. It is to these people that we can turn in order to replenish our encouragement, hope, and inspiration."
- Scott A. Hunt (The Future of Peace)
"In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, have done something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response."
- Elie Wiesel