This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Hotel Rwanda: Review

I wish to place it on record that since writing this review (on 1 January 2007) my views on Rwanda have undergone major transformation. I also wish to put it on record that Mr Paul Rusesabagina has characterised the current Rwandan government as a dictatorship and that he cannot enter the country now due to the threat to his life.

"When a country descended into madness and the world turned its back, one man had to make a choice"

That is the tagline of what is billed to be the true-life story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu hotel manager in Kigali married to a Tutsi named Tatiana (played by Sophie Okonedo), trained in Belgium and running the four-star Hotel Des Milles Collines in the capital city of Kigali, Rwanda in 1994, during the period when Hutu Interahamwe militia, aided and abetted by the Hutu Rwandan Army, murdered up to a million people, Tutsi and Hutu, men, women, and children.
The film begins with Clinton expressing his "concern" over Bosnia, and segues to a brief voice over from Hutu radio talking about the untrustworthiness of the Tutsis who have signed a ceasefire in their rebellion against the Hutu President Juvenal Habariyama,. All this is in pitch black, before the cameras come on.
When the story begins, Paul, played by Don Cheadle, is on his way with a Tutsi driver to pick up cigars from Cuba with which to bribe a Hutu Interahamwe militia chief to give him food and liquor for his guests. The leader asks him to join the militia and gives him a tribal multicoloured cloth. On the way back, this cloth saves his driver from being murdered by a Hutu gang, when Paul brandishes it to proclaim "Hutu power".
Later, they watch while a Hutu army unit arrest a Tutsi neighbour at the dead of night and listen to the screams of the man's wife, but are powerless to do anything to intervene. Paul's Tutsi brother in law talks about how his Hutu friend has warned him to flee while there is still time; but it is too late already, the President is killed in a plane crash, and the Hutu radio proclaims that the time to "cut the tall trees" has arrived. The country explodes in violence, Paul bribes an army officer to let him take his Tutsi wife and their children, as well as all their surviving neighbours, to the hotel, which is under nominal UN control. The UN is represented by a force of just 300 men in the entire country, under the control of a Canadian Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte) who is forbidden to open fire even in self defence. As he says, he's there as a peacekeeper, not as a peace maker, and there is no peace to keep.
As the country explodes into genocide, there is an interesting interview with a US State Department spokesman who is asked whether or not it is a fact that he has been ordered to preface the word "genocide" every time with "acts of". He hems and haws and ultimately says that he will just say that he implements his orders as best he can.
As more and more moderate Hutus and desperate Tutsis gather at the hotel, and "cockroach" hunting Hutu militias wander outside, a European military force arrives...only to remove only the foreign (read white) guests, and leave the rest of the people to die. France and Britain demand the removal of the minuscule UN force as well.
Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a journalist and photographer, asks Paul if he did right by airing footage of a massacre.
“If people see this they’ll say ‘Oh, my God. That’s horrible,’” he explains to Paul, “Then they go on eating their dinners.”
Colonel Oliver points out just how little Paul and his people mean to the rest of the world. “You’re not even a nigger,” he tells him, “You’re an African.”
An African explains to Phoenix' character early on the difference between Tutsi and Hutu. The Belgians decided to create a collaborator class during their colonial days (like the Kurds and some Shias in Iraq today). So they picked out tall, fairer Rwandans with aquiline noses (they actually measured the noses) and put them in positions of authority, calling them "Tutsis".
This leads to one of the moments of black humour in the movie.

Journalist (Joaquin Phoenix): (To pretty girl) "Are you Hutu or Tutsi?"
Girl: "I'm Tutsi."
Journalist (referring to other pretty girl): "And your friend is a Tutsi as well?"
Second girl: "No, Hutu".
Journalist (to African interlocutor): "But they could be twins."
(African shrugs)
Journalist (to first pretty girl): "I'd like to carry on this conversation later in my room."

That girl is later abandoned by Phoenix when the evacuation of foreigners happens.
When Paul and his assistant attempt to make a run to buy more supplies, he finds himself running over piles of bodies in the road in the fog. This is supposed to be the high point of the movie, but I felt it was a poor copy of the similar but more gruesome scene in "The Killing Fields" about the Cambodian genocide.
An attempt to evacuate some of the people trapped there is betrayed and the convoy, which includes Paul's wife and children (Paul elected to stay behind at the last moment), somehow makes it back to the hotel.
How Paul and his charges survive later is a mix of Paul's skills at bribery, flattery, and, later, the threat that only he can save a Hutu general (Bizimunga) from a war crimes trial. The hotel's Belgian owners would have liked to close it down. Only Paul, interacting with the director (Jean Reno), and lying through his teeth when necessary, keeps it going and even enlists some help through the French who armed and aided the Hutu army.
There is a scene where a Red Cross worker describes the murder of a Tutsi girl. "She cried saying 'Don't kill me, I promise I won't be a Tutsi any more'," she says with tears in her eyes.
I won't give the ending away, except that it's happy...sort of.
There are a few points of criticism of the film. It is not explicit in its depiction of blood and mayhem, preferring machete swinging lunatic militia to make noises rather than actually use their machetes. Also it glosses over the action of the Catholic Church, which often aided and abetted the massacres (a Catholic priest was recently jailed for helping murder 4000 Tutsis trapped in a church) - all Catholics in the film are either window dressing or moderately heroic priests and nuns. But then it's an American film and the director needed to maintain his ratings and his audience.
The massacres ended with the victory of the Tutsi rebel army and the Interahamwe and Hutu Army fleeing - leaving behind them a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates dead. For a tiny country like Rwanda, that's even worse than it sounds.
So is it a film about the good Tutsis versus the evil Hutus? Sorry, it isn't.
Especially if you look at the recent history of Rwanda and Burundi. In Burundi the Tutsi always lorded it over the Hutus and there is a Tutsi military dictatorship in power now. In Rwanda, while the massacres targeted Tutsis, Hutus who were either pro-Tutsi or neutral suffered too at the hands of the Interahamwe. Even the film shows how the army was really not in full control over the Interahamwe militia and called them "crazy men".
After the takeover, the Tutsis set up a de facto Tutsi dictatorship with a figurehead Hutu president. It was no representative government of both sides.
After the retreat from Rwanda, the Interahamwe set up bases inside what was then Zaire and conducted raids into Rwanda in order to massacre Tutsis and Hutus who wanted to just get on with life. Then, Rwanda's Tutsi army joined with the Zairean rebels of Laurent Kabila and invaded Zaire, expelled the American-supported criminal dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, and imposed Kabila (who was later murdered by his own palace guard and succeeded by his son) as President. Things soured almost at once when Kabila showed himself as not being a Rwandan puppet. The alliances suddenly shifted, Rwanda again invaded Zaire (now Congo) to dethrone Kabila. The Interahamwe then switched to Kabila's side. Angola sent troops to support Kabila, while Uganda sent troops to the Rwandan side. The horrible Congolese civil war, where some 90% of the atrocities can be laid at the door of the Rwandans and Ugandans, continues to this day.
So, it's NOT a clear cut fight of good versus evil. I think it's clear enough from the film, where Paul is a Hutu and it's mentioned that there were Hutus among the more than 1200 people he sheltered at the hotel.
All in all: excellent, but could have been improved if the director had been a little braver.
I just wonder if it might have been different if Rwanda had had oil.

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