Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004)
Category: Sad film about genocide. (It’s rare that you see a happy/funny film on this subject. Sort it out, Apatow.) We’ve tackled the Holocaust in this blog (I didn’t literally tackle any Nazis, but rest assured that I would do so, with Justin Tuck-ian ferocity, if there were any in the area), and it’s about time that we do the same with other genocides. Here are three famous genocides from history, why they were sad, and whether or not any movies were made about them. (Hey, this can be a running feature on the blog! Genocide Watch. This is up there with the March Madness of diseases among the great ideas that I’ve had on the blog.)
1. Native Americans (1492-1890) – The slow eradication of most of the indigenous people in the Americas mainly occurred over a four-hundred year period, due largely to epidemics and shooting them with guns. The culmination of this period was the famous “Trail of Tears,” which I just now realize would totally be a good name for a Splash Mountain-type ride, with people riding log flumes out of a sad-looking Native American’s man eyes on a wave of his “tears” and such. Look for that at my new theme park, RacistLand. But srsly, this is all especially sad because of how conveniently we Americans forget about all this nowadays even as we racistly name sports teams after them and gamble at their casinos. Movies about the Native American genocide include Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas and Avatar.
2. Armenia (1915-1917) – In an effort to peer pressure the more reluctant Nazis in his inner circle to just go along with this whole Holocaust plan, Hitler famously said, “who remembers the Armenians?” By which he meant that history had already forgotten about the mass slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I (an event which caused the invention of the term “genocide” itself, in fact). Hitler was wrong, of course; history totally remembers both. In fact, it's still super-awkward between Armenians and Turks, especially because the Turkish government denies that the word "genocide" is an accurate description of the event. (They prefer the term "deathapalooza.") Ararat is the most prominent film on the subject.
3. Cambodia (1975-1979) -- Unlike the other genocides we've discussed, the genocide in Cambodia was not entirely based on ethnicity. The Khmer Rouge government targeted various groups that they considered to be enemies of the government, including intellectuals/glasses-wearers. Pol Pot, the dictator at the time, was a real terrible dude, and was responsible for deaths of somewhere in between one and two million people during his rule. The Killing Fields, starring Sam Waterston, is the most prominent film on the subject, and makes it clear that even killer robots are preferable to the Khmer Rouge. (Warning: people denying the existence of robots may be robots themselves.)
So there's that. This film, of course, deals with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 people (mostly members of the Tutsi ethnic group) were killed. I think a major reason that the Rwandan genocide is so sad is because it happened so recently. I'd much rather think of the world that I have inhabited in my lifetime as being free from fits of widespread mass insanity. But Rwanda, and Darfur, and loads of other events in recent history, prove that fits of widespread mass insanity are occasionally still in vogue.
My familiarity with this issue: Well I know that the movie itself is quite historically accurate, because father of the blog Mr. Krizel used to show it in his world history class. Personally, I can't say I've ever had any exceptionally epic explorations in Rwanda, or any post-genocidal country for that matter. However, the first class I ever attended in college was partially devoted to the Rwandan genocide. It was a writing class entitled "Testimony, Truth, Justice and the Nation" (I just looked it up), and like most of my college classes I don't remember that much about it. I do remember, however, watching a documentary on the aftermath of the genocide that was pretty intense, and underscored the difficulty of continuing to exist as a nation after one major ethnic group has spent several months killing and raping the members of the other. So I’ve got some background here. (Also, I LOVE staying in hotels.)
What I thought of the movie: It’s incredibly good. I think it’s the best movie I’ve watched for the blog so far. It’s straightforward and honest and so intensely gripping, and while I was really moved by the story, I was not distracted by any of the artifice inherent in its status as a Hollywood movie. Many critics pointed out the film’s similarity to Schindler’s List, and I feel that’s an apt and worthy comparison (maybe it’s not as artful or elegiac as Schindler’s List, but it had the added difficulty of being about an event with which many people are not as familiar). It’s based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who uses his status as a Hutu in much the same way as Oskar Schindler used his Nazi connections: to gladhand and smile and keep his fellow Hutus/Nazis from murdering hundreds of people (1,268 people were sheltered at the hotel, according to a graphic at the end of the film). Don Cheadle is really awesome at conveying Rusesabagina’s professional, calm demeanor, barely hiding his anguish at what is happening in his country, in the face of such madness, as his quick thinking and compassion is directly responsible for saving so many lives.
I’d imagine it would be easy to make this movie a didactic condemnation of the West’s lack of response to the genocide. But while this is touched upon, most memorably in a scene where Joaquin Phoenix’s photojournalist describes the typical reaction of an American to seeing footage of the atrocities on the evening news (“they'll say Oh, my God, that's horrible. And then they'll go on eating their dinners”), it’s done entirely in service to the story of Paul and his family and his hotel. The movie is about a lot of things, but it is first and foremost about a man trying to do five or six impossible things at once (keep the soldiers away, protect his family, maintain the image of the hotel, appeal to whoever he can for help, etc). That’s the thing about these movies about terrible huge events: it’s impossible to convey the enormity of the Rwandan genocide as a whole in a two-hour movie, but using the story of Paul Rusesabagina as a prism allows us to understand it much better.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: We’ve talked about my cowardice on the blog before. I feel like I’m in the majority here, though, in saying that I do not possess the skills necessary to do what Paul Rusesabagina did. He cajoles and bribes, subtly manipulating and outright lying when he needs to, in order to keep people safe. I’ve done all of those things in my day, except maybe bribing, and I’m not that great at them. In general, people can read my, can read my, yeah they can read my poker face. And when I cajole, I usually open with a whiney “C’monnnnnnnnnn.” Paul Rusesabagina never said “C’monnnnnnnnnn.”
For serious though, there are things in this movie that are unimaginable, and not just the parts that focus on the atrocities themselves. Cheadle is so good and so human that it’s impossible for us not to empathize with him, a peaceful man, whose wife is a Tutsi and thus in tremendous danger, who not only tries to survive but to maintain his dignity, even as the soldiers are pointing guns at him and threatening his family. There’s a scene early in the film, when the genocide was just beginning and Paul has allowed the first refugees into his hotel, where he says, “I might lose my job.” This coming a few minutes after a gun was pointed at his head, and he had to literally pay someone not to kill his wife and kids. I’m not saying that it’s unrealistic or that it rings false (quite the contrary, it fits exactly with how we already view him as the consummate professional); I’m just saying that if anything remotely resembling this had happened to me, keeping my job might not be the first thing on my mind. I’d be more concerned about buying toilet paper. And also insulin.
How I felt after the movie ended: I guess it’s kind of a SPOILER, but c’mon not really, that he survives and saves a whole lot of people, and so that was nice. But there were still so many who were left in that refugee camp when Paul and his family left. There were times in the movie where I was nearly moved to tears, but at the end I was more in awe of how good the movie was. And also still excited about what a fun name “Rusesabagina” is.