It is April 1994 and Paul Rusesabagina is the up-and-coming manager of one of the best hotels in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. Then, in one fatal night, his whole world changes. The president of Rwanda is killed in a plane crash and Hutu militia begin slaughtering their "traitorous" Tutsi neighbours. While Paul is a Hutu, his wife Tatiana is Tutsi, as are many of his friends and co-workers. Given the option of fleeing the country with Tatiana and leaving the others to die, Paul decides to stay and shield the innocents from the genocidal madness. Abandoned by the first world and the UN peacekeepers, Paul must bribe, barter, beg and threaten to save the lives of the 1200 people huddled inside his hotel.
It seems incredible that no one has made a film about the Rwandan genocide until now. Like the holocaust of World War 2, it is one of the most awful chapters in human history. Why has an event in which nearly 1 million people were literally hacked to death not sparked a dozen films?
Perhaps the answer lies in our inability to comprehend the genocide - the horror of those 100 days of slaughter - and make some meaning out of it. Perhaps when people's actions seem so inhuman, we struggle to connect with them. And this is the nexus of Hotel Rwanda's power - it places the story of an ordinary man who saved 1200 people from the slaughter at centre stage. By doing so it gives us a handle to grasp the tragedy, providing a portal through which we can experience a terrible event first hand.
Not that "Hotel Rwanda" at all glorifies or exploits the tragedy. If anything, it could be criticised for how little actual violence it shows. This is a wise choice by the filmmakers. Had they focussed too much on the bestiality of the killings or the scale of the slaughter they would have risked forcing their audience to disengage, and the film would have become just one more blood soaked Hollywood gladiator show.
Instead "Hotel Rwanda" is a character driven film that relies on the actors' performances and not on special effects or epic battle scenes. Both Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo give perhaps the finest performances of their careers, lending their characters a depth of emotion and complexity of expression that makes them utterly believable. They are aided by an excellent cast of supporting actors. Nick Nolte gives a standout performance as the compassionate but ultimately powerless commander of the UN's forces in Rwanda.
But what ultimately makes "Hotel Rwanda" such an extraordinary film is the story itself. Like "Schindler's List" it is the story of an island of humanity in a sea of inhumanity. Like Oscar Schindler, Paul Rusesabagina was an ordinary, rather flawed man. He was certainly not a gung-ho hero or a bleeding heart humanitarian. When he makes the decision to save his friends and neighbours from the machetes of the Interahamwe, it is on the spur of the moment. There is no noble posing, no patriotic chest beating. He does not think about it. He simply does what he feels is right.
The film also has its share of flaws. At times it tugs unashamedly at the heartstrings, though here this does feel more justified than the violins that Hollywood drags out to mourn the passing of a talking cartoon cat. Another problem is the rather heavy-handed condemnation of the first world. This may be justified (the West did nothing to stop the genocide), but in the end it only detracts from the power of the story.
Even with its flaws, "Hotel Rwanda" should be required viewing for every thinking human being. Within one story it presents us with both the worst and best that we are capable of as a species. It allows us to confront our darkest nightmares, while at the same time giving us hope that, armed only with intelligence and compassion, we can overcome our demons.
- Alistair Fairweather