Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, David O'Hara, Cara Seymour, Fana Mokoena, Jean Reno
Directed By: Terry George
After finishing up the Best Picture nominees last night, we decided to round out the Best Actor nominees by seeing Hotel Rwanda this afternoon. I've been wanting to see Hotel Rwanda since I heard about it, but movies about genocide don't usually make for an enjoyable evening out, so it got put off. Now that I've seen it, I'm glad that I did. It's the great reward of my Oscar binge, because I probably would have missed it otherwise. It's now my job to spread the word.
First off, I need to get over some of the tricky language involved in describing a movie such as this. A movie detailing such atrocities is difficult to describe with any positive adjectives such as great or excellent. You can't exactly say that you "loved" a movie about Rwandan genocide. Thus, the subject matter and the film need to be separated. The subject matter is horrifying, heart-wrenching, terrifying, and sobering. The film is excellent. Easily one of the best of the year, and whatever we're calling this decade.
Let me address why you might think you might not want to watch this movie, and then tell you why you should. Is it depressing? Of course it is. Ten years ago, over 800,000 Rwandans were brutally slaughtered over a period of 100 days while the rest of the world did nothing. However, the film itself isn't overly depressing. Beneath the horror on screen lies a story of hope. This is a movie about what one man, one ordinary businessman, did in the face of such unspeakable horror to save the lives of thousands. The movie shows us the price of ignorance, while reinforcing the indomitable nature of the human spirit. It at once shows humanity at its absolute very worst, and its very best.
Another concern about such a film is that many don't like to see movies full of such sheer brutality and violence, no matter how important or accurate it may be. Well, the violence in Hotel Rwanda is more often than not shown off-screen, which is ultimately the more powerful choice. Instead of showing us Hutu militias slaughtering Tutsi's with machetes, director Terry George shows us the reactions of the survivors, or the aftermath of the carnage. This humanises the conflict instead of filling the screen with gore to an audience who have long since become desensitised to such imagery.
Finally, some might worry that such a movie will be too preachy, designed to make us well-fed westerners feel guilty for our ignorance in the conflicts of Africa. Of course, there is some of that, but most of the guilt and anger you'll feel upon exiting the theatre will come from inside the viewer, and not because the film talks down to the viewer. Any preachiness of the film is quite subtle, choosing instead to show what happened, and let us decide for ourselves how we should feel. Also, the film is quite good in not making its white supporting cast the heroes of the movie. They are, for the most part, helpless on-lookers that get to leave the tragedy as it starts, much to their relief and shame.
Simply put, the film is too good to be missed, and the story is an important one that needs to be told. Comparisons to Schindler's List are inescapable, and not entirely unreasonable. However, the lessons of that film, and the Jewish Holocaust in general, "never forget", apparently don't apply to all parts of the world, which is why films like Hotel Rwanda need to be made to document a genocide that occured only 10 years ago (at its peak, the genocide claimed 8,000 lives per day, a rate far faster than the Holocaust, even if the western world refused to acknowledge it as genocide, merely "acts of genocide"). Will it be another 10 years until we pay attention to the current atrocities in the Sudan?
That, of course, is the hope this movie brings, that people will stand up and take notice. However, the movie itself poses that very issue when the hero of the film Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) proclaims his belief that the footage cameraman Jack (Joaquin Phoenix) filmed will spur the world into action, and Jack replies "After they see this, people are gonna say 'my God, that's terrible' and then go on eating their dinners".
Getting back to the film itself, Cheadle shines as Rusesabagina (a Hutu), earning his Best Actor nomination, deserving of the award entirely. The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent including Sophie Okonedo as Cheadle's Tutsi wife Tatiana (earning her an Best Supporting Actress nomination), Nick Nolte as UN soldier "Coloniel Oliver" (who is the only fictional character in the film, but is most likely Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, or at least a composite of Dallaire and other UN figures), Phoenix, Jean Reno, and a large cast of African actors. The movie was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but unfairly shut out of the Best Picture and Best Director categories, probably because a lot of the Academy never watched it. But it deserves a nomination, as it is easily a better film than Ray, Sideways, and Finding Neverland. It is easily the most powerful film I've seen all year, and the most affecting film I've seen in a while.
Schindler's List (1993)
Sometimes In April (2005)