The majority of films are forgettable. A slim minority are entertaining. A precious few are insightful. And then, every so often, a film comes along that is truly significant. Hotel Rwanda is one such film.
Hotel Rwanda is a significant film primarily because it documents an era in history when the system broke down. It was a time when people around the world glanced up at their television sets during dinner, saw images of carnage and genocide, and then calmly resumed their meals. Over a period of 100 days in 1994, nearly one million people were massacred in Rwanda—many of them women and children, and most of them hacked to death by their neighbors with machetes. But, apart from a few NGO’s and religious groups, the world didn’t lift a finger to stop the killing.
Outsiders did not intervene, this film argues, because to most people, Rwandans were not even “niggers,” they were Africans. While racism likely had something to do with our hesitance to intervene, I am certain that bureaucratic squabbling and incompetence were just as significant. But no matter why the world failed to step forward, the fact remains that nearly one million people died, and millions more were injured and/or traumatized by the violence. If there is one message that comes through loud and clear in this film, it is this: Never again. As difficult as it is to imagine, we would be naïve to think that such atrocities will not happen again somewhere in the world. I just pray that we have learned enough from our indifference and incompetence in this situation to respond more appropriately in the future.
Hotel Rwanda is also significant because it shows us that in the midst of the carnage (which the film mostly suggests rather than depicts), there were also people who did care. One of these people was Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the Hotel Des Milles Collines, a four star establishment in Kigali. Paul’s intentions are far from selfless at the beginning of the film. He is more focused on currying favor with the power elite than helping his fellow man. But when the killing begins, he does not hesitate to use his connections to protect Tutsi and Hutu refugees, eventually sheltering 1,286 of them in his hotel. As this film portrays, this was an extraordinary feat, made possible mainly by Rusesabagina’s influence, intelligence, bravery, and wit. Other heroic figures in this film include the embittered UN colonel tasked with watching the massacre but not intervening, a young news cameraman who lays his life on the line to get the story to the world, a Red Cross worker who is forced to witness the execution of the children she is trying to rescue, and numerous unnamed Catholic priests and nuns. With so many films, TV shows, and politicians suggesting revenge as the only appropriate response to evil, it is refreshing to see a film that demonstrates characters who embrace an alternate point of view. While the Hutus and Tutsis were slaughtering each other as a way to settle old scores—trying to overcome evil with evil—Rusesabagina and company were trying to overcome evil with good. And, miracle of miracles, it worked! For those who wonder whether there really is anything good in the midst of all the horror they witness on CNN each week, this film answers with a resounding “Yes!” There is reason for hope. All it takes is for good men and women to act boldly in the face of tragedy.
Finally, this film is significant because it reminds us that no matter how comfortable our lives are over here, there are always people living over there for whom comfort is but a vague thought at the bottom of a long list of primary needs. With the death toll from the South Asian tsunami still rising, this is hardly a new thought. But I am certain it will not be long before we, too, look up from our dinner at the scenes of horror caused by this natural disaster, and then resume our meal. As any aid agency will tell you, people have a tendency to respond generously to such situations out of emotion over the short term. But that response quickly fizzles out as we become immune to the images and resume our normal lives. Hence, we need films like Hotel Rwanda to help us fend off indifference and remind us that giving is not a one-time event. If we truly want to make a difference, if we truly want to prevent tragedies like Rwanda from happening again, generosity must become a lifestyle.
When it comes time for the Oscars this February, I hope Hotel Rwanda is nominated for Best Picture, if only because that means more people will see it. That said; I am doubtful it will win, mainly because from an artistic point of view, it is not exactly a spectacular film. The acting is first-rate, especially by star Don Cheadle, and the script is solid. But director Terry George has chosen dramatic realism over flash and style, which may not impress some voters. I guess it all comes down to what Academy members base their votes on: style or significance. If it is the latter, Hotel Rwanda will definitely go home with the gold.