It wasn't the first time society had turned a blind eye to genocide, of course. Fifty years earlier, 6 million Jews were "exterminated" by the Nazis. When the war ended, a contrite family of nations vowed "never again." Yet 30 years later, the world stood by while the Khmer Rouge swept across Cambodia, systematically slaughtering 1.7 million people. Then came Rwanda, followed by the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. Today, it's Sudan, where government-backed Arab militias in the Darfur region seem determined to annihilate the country's black population. So much for "never again."
Hotel Rwanda, the true story of a soft-spoken Hutu hotel manager who risked his own life to save 1,200 Tutsis, may be the most important film released in the past year. Among the class of 2004, it is certainly one of the best. And much of its value comes from the fact that it is targeted at a mainstream audience.
Crass as it may sound, the movie is viewer-friendly. It's in English, with recognizable American actors in lead roles -- Don Cheadle and Nick Nolte chief among them. It lays out its horrific story in a way that is easy for Western audiences to follow. And, while the filmmakers imply much violence and show hundreds of bodies strewn along the road, the actual amount of blood seen on-screen is minimal. Corpses are not visibly mutilated (as they were in real life), and the terror lies more in what viewers know to be happening than in what they actually see.
Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle) is house manager at Milles Collines, a Belgian-owned luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. A Hutu, he is married to Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), who is Tutsi. Historical tensions have long divided the two tribes. Recently, there have been rumors circulating that the Hutus, who make up the majority of the population, are planning an uprising against the ruling Tutsis. Paul refuses to believe it.
When the attack does come, the Hutus spare no one. In a barbaric, 100-day rampage, they slaughter 800,000 of their countrymen. A contingent of United Nations peacekeeping forces is already stationed in Rwanda, but the Security Council forbids the troops from intervening to stop the bloodshed.
Hundreds of terrified Tutsis seek refuge in Milles Collines, where Paul has been left in charge by his European bosses who, being white, have been airlifted out of the country. Eventually, some 1,200 traumatized Tutsis and moderate Hutus fill the hotel. Paul houses them, feeds them, and repeatedly puts his own life in danger by offering bribes to Hutu rebel leaders to leave the refugees alone. But as Paul's supply of money and liquor dwindles, so does his ability to negotiate for lives.
Cheadle, always a fine actor, is outstanding here -- an almost willfully naive yet uncommonly decent man who sees civilization crashing and burning around him yet who, almost against his own better judgment, refuses to give in to it. One of the most interesting aspects of Paul's character development is how he slowly begins to realize not only the magnitude of the unfolding tragedy but also that the world community has abandoned the Rwandans to their fate.
"You don't honestly believe that you can kill them all?" he asks a Hutu rebel leader almost rhetorically. "And why not?" replies the stone-faced man. Paul's faith in the United Nations is shattered first by an American journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) and then by the head of U.N. forces in the region (Nolte), both of whom bitterly explain that the West plans to do nothing to stop the violence.
Paul realizes that for years, he has deluded himself into believing that -- by serving management loyally and catering to the whims of the rich and politically powerful, both black and white -- he has earned their appreciation, respect, and protection. He is equally disheartened to discover that the hotel's black employees refuse to accept him as their boss without a letter from the head of the Belgian parent company.
British director Terry George wisely eschews fancy camerawork or editing, allowing the horror and confusion of the real-life events to speak for themselves. And in Cheadle, he has found the perfect actor to convey an ordinary man who, trapped inside a waking nightmare, must rely on his own wits and willpower to keep his family safe -- and, in so doing, save hundreds of families.