'Hotel Rwanda' shows that one man can save part of the world, but he may not be able to change it
American movie audiences have seen enough to be at home in the ghettos of Warsaw and the racial battlegrounds of the Deep South, bearing witness to outrages so vile we wishfully call them "inhuman." As affecting as these stories are, many viewers tell themselves this is a history whose lessons the world has learned; these things can't happen again.
Well, they can. They threaten to happen with alarming frequency. Tragically, they sometimes happen in countries without sufficient oil reserves for the U.S. government to pay much attention.
Hotel Rwanda recounts the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where - thanks to an artificial ethnic distinction made by occupying Belgians in the early 20th century - one group of people slaughtered 800,000 of their neighbors in the space of three months. The two factions, the Hutus and the Tutsis, spoke the same language and had the same traditions; but the smaller Tutsi population had been favored by the Belgians, breeding a decades-long resentment that exploded after a political assassination in April 1994.
Hotel Rwanda is not a great film, but it is a deeply affecting one, with the power to shock viewers into outrage, not only at the atrocities onscreen but at the idea that our leaders (both in Washington and at the United Nations) ignored the problem for so long. It's also capable of provoking despair in our own individual impotence, and the sad defense mechanisms we've developed to deal with it: As a journalist says to a Rwandan who expects the Western world to come to his rescue after seeing footage of a massacre, "They'll say 'Oh my God, that's horrible,' and then go on with their dinners."
As recent editorials have pointed out, this movie should direct the world's attention to places such as Sudan, where a genocide is underway while the U.S. and the U.N. take turns explaining why they're not stopping it. Hotel Rwanda holds a dim view of U.N. soldiers who take the Orwellian view that their job is to keep the peace, not create it. (The troops are led by Nick Nolte, who doesn't fit the role but works hard at it.)
It's possible that one of the film's dramatic failings is actually an extremely clever ruse to force Westerners into the hero's role with regard to contemporary atrocities: In a film about black people helping other blacks escape from blacks, a surprising number of the good chunks of dialogue are given to white characters.
As violence begins, though, Paul is forced into action. He's only interested in saving his wife and children, but he starts a ripple that leads a wave of refugees to the sanctuary of his hotel. In a gradual but engrossing transformation, Rusesabagina's knack for graft turns him into a natural hero. By the film's end he is housing more than 1,000 people who, outside his walls, would likely be hacked to death with machetes.
Rusesabagina's transformation is one of Hotel Rwanda's greatest strengths: While it is a tale of large-scale danger and survival, it never loses sight of the intricate evolution of one man's conscience. The movie's prayer is that Paul Rusesabagina's transformation from self-interest to self-sacrifice can be echoed in the hearts of moviegoers around the world. •
By John DeFore