Hotel Rwanda (12A)

Written by Keir Pearson and Terry George, Directed by Terry George
On general release (not FACT) from 4th March 2005

Reviewed by Tim Kopp

Confirming his status as one of America’s best contemporary actors, Don Cheadle gives an excellent leading performance as a hotel manager whose resort provides a haven for Tutsi refugees during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The film itself is a well-meant but misguided melange of thriller and docu-drama with a terrible score and sketchy historical context. **1/2 out of five

The Rwadan capital Kigali in April 1994. There is ethnic tension between the two groups that together form the population of the central African state, the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. The Tutsi population of Kigali lives in a permanent state of fear while the rich and well-connected find shelter at the hotel Des Milles Collines which also serves as an assembly point for western expatriates and UN peacekeepers. Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel’s general manager experiences Hutu aggression first hand when demonstrators threaten one of his Tutsi staff. When the president of Rwanda dies in a plane crash, the ceasefire comes to an end as the Hutus occupy the capital. Exploiting his connections to the militia, Paul manages to save his family and friends and moves them to the hotel where they are soon joined by Tutsi orphans and moderate Hutus seeking refuge from the massacre in Kigali’s streets and suburbs. When the western nations evacuate their citizens and the UN Security Council withdraws most of its peacekeepers, the fate of the surviving refugees and of his family lies in Rusesabagina’s hands.

The first in a series of feature films and television programmes to deal with the Rwandan civil war in 1994, Hotel Rwanda is the sort of well-intentioned picture that seeks to reach and educate mainstream audiences by making the horrors of genocide palatable within the conventions of suspense thrillers and ending with comforting suggestions of a more hopeful future. The templates are Roland Joffé’s 1984 picture The Killing Fields about the ethnic cleansing campaign in Cambodia, and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List from which Hotel Rwanda takes the inspiration for its uplifting real-life story of a courageous man who saved over 1,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus from mass murder. However, the attempt to inform and generate discussion among uninitiated audiences about this African tragedy by presenting it as a blend of political thriller and human drama leaves the film vulnerable to moral objections.

Rusesabagina’s story ostensibly has the potential for suspense and emotional drama but is it appropriate and morally responsible to present the delicate and historically complex subject of genocide as the backdrop for a film that not only desires to inform but to thrill? Such choices give reason for discomfort that is hard to shake off but Hotel Rwanda is admittedly effective if viewed purely as a thriller. From the start, there is a palpable sense of dread and unease and the film successfully sustains the menacing, increasingly hellish atmosphere while commendably keeping the atrocities largely off-screen. Often enough, it creates genuine tension even if that is largely due to Don Cheadle’s magnificent performance and the inherent drama of the conflict than the conventional direction. If only Hotel Rwanda was more trusting in the direct truth of these events to leave a mark on its audience instead of overemphasising the drama of a given moment and in the end trivialising and sentimentalising the historic truth. Keir Pearson’s script merely goes through the motions and provides only the most simplified political and historical context while Andrea Guerra’s score imposes itself at first distractingly then annoyingly on the whole film. The ending too feels awkward: it does admittedly reflect the reality of Rusesabagina’s story but by reaffirming the film’s message of triumph over adversity, it softens the bleak, uncomfortable truth of the genocide at large.

As in Schindler’s List, the focus on humane deeds that proved to be the exception tends to eschew the real issue of the loss of millions of lives. Just like Spielberg’s film, Hotel Rwanda is a decidedly average message movie that only becomes significant for its educational value and Cheadle’s extraordinary performance.