indieWIRE Review: The Blindest Eye: Terry George's "Hotel Rwanda"
by Jeff Reichert (with responses from Adam Nayman and Michael Koresky)
[indieWIRE weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. Founded by four friends in the winter of 2003, Reverse Shot (www.reverseshot.com) is a new kind of online and print community aimed at the next generation of film lovers. Reverse Shot's unique symposium format allows writers an unprecedented flexibility in choosing the films they get to write about which leads to better, more exciting articles. Irreverent, intelligent, rigorous, not rigor-mortised.]
In reckoning with a film like "Hotel Rwanda" it's necessary to immediately draw a sharp distinction between the subject matter and the quality of the vessel employed to convey it, a position ever more tenuous as we get up to our thighs in Award-season overload. For, as necessary as this first high-profile film dealing with the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide may be as a history lesson, calling it a great film is another matter entirely. Featuring a true-life tale of, yes, "ordinary heroism in the face of massive obstacles," a serviceable lead performance from a well-respected actor more often relegated to supporting turns, stirring African children's choirs, and aggressively accessible direction and structure (one could be forgiven for expecting a well-placed earthquake, volcano explosion, or luxury transportation disaster instead of humanitarian crisis), "Hotel Rwanda" may be a little too tailor-made for its December 22nd limited release to seem wholly genuine.
"Rwanda" plays close to formula, never moving past even the most modest genre expectations. Focusing its narrow lens squarely on the unassuming shoulders of luxury hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), it details Rwanda immediately preceding and following the assassination of President Habyarimana, which sparked ethnic majority Hutu extremists (exhorted at various points in the film by a Radio Mille-Collines announcer who could teach Rush Limbaugh a bit about ignorant bluster) to begin the systematic genocide of nearly one million Tutsi and moderate Hutus. Initially working to protect his family (his wife is Tutsi), Paul turns his place of employment, the four-star Hotel Mille Collines, into an impromptu place of sanctuary, eventually host to over a thousand refugees, all of whom survive due to Paul's stewardship. Cheadle's performance is sure to garner accolades, but as Paul morphs from smooth servant to increasingly desperate schemer, we see less a change of means than ends. Cheadle realizes, correctly, that they're merely flip sides of the same coin and manages to studiously avoid most of the noble grandstanding this role would normally require. His pre-war position as hotel manager afforded him relationships with the upper echelons of Rwanda's military elite and, in his eyes, an advanced position in society. This façade of elevated status crumbles in the face of Western indifference to the tragedy; Nick Nolte's Canadian Colonel Oliver tells him, "You're worse than a nigger. You're African." It's a political realization of the essential post-colonial paradox which Africa's greatest filmmaker Ousmane Sembene has been plumbing in his films since the Sixties, and this marks the only moment where the film truly pokes through its own muted indignance.
While I'm normally an exponent of trimming back Hollywood's show-everything excess in favor of more suggestive approaches, when dealing with genocide, especially of the recent, highly preventable variety, I wouldn't mind leaving the theater a little queasier, even if my nausea had been induced by few a well-placed sucker punches. But director Terry George eschews even the most meager agit-prop fervor, only hinting at the slaughter with a few shots of corpses glimpsed through thick fog -- it's the same trick we all let Roberto Benigni get away with in "Life Is Beautiful." Sometimes the aesthetic aspirations of a film lag far beyond its well-meaning politics, though even more often the opposite is true. Rare enough is it that we find films dealing with the histories that Western powers would like to sweep under the rug (as far as I can tell, only a pair of films have been made dealing with the Japanese Internment during WWII, "Come See the Paradise" and the superior "Snow Falling on Cedars"), that it's hard to demand a perfect calibration of the two from the ultimately well-meaning "Hotel Rwanda," especially as today's similar tragedies in Sudan seem about to go similarly ignored. After having my belief in the transformative power of cinema dashed by Mike Nichols' soul-sapping "Closer," I'm about ready to proclaim "Hotel Rwanda" essential. Maybe we should call it a necessary evil instead.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures and co-director of the Providence French Film Festival.]
By Adam Nayman
Terry George's "Hotel Rwanda" is slippery stuff. It's morally unimpeachable, yet reducing the history of the real Rwandan genocide to two opposing pathologies (good and evil) and ignoring its wider implications in favor of a suspense-thriller narrative is not exactly laudable filmmaking (although that didn't stop the Hollywood Foreign Press association from showering "Hotel Rwanda" with Golden Globe nominations).
What is laudable in "Hotel Rwanda" is the typically nuanced performance of Don Cheadle as its central character -- Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who, abandoned by his superiors, used the hotel to hide Tutsi refugees from Hutu militiamen and legitimate soldiers alike. Cheadle is essentially reprising Liam Nesson's "Schindler's List" role -- he goes from an ingratiating bootlick to a defiant champion of the imperiled, a transition the actor manages without even raising his beautifully modulated voice above a whisper.
That Rusesabagina is a genuine hero is unquestionable. What is questionable is how director-co-writer George labors to impose a sense of dramatic comprehension on an experience that palpably resists it. His ostensibly austere approach to depicting the by now well-documented horrors of the conflict rings false -- his slow-reveals of streets littered with bodies is shock-horror moviemaking gussied up as empathetic docudrama. The penultimate sequence, in which a U.N. caravan is spared by the intervention of Tutsi rebels is just awful: it's filmed like a triumphant cavalry charge, its victims (on both sides) forgotten in a sun-dappled finale that is meant to suggest the indomitable spirit of Rwanda's people but feels more like a bunch of narrative (and moral, and intellectual, and historical) loose ends forcibly tied, double-knotted, and cut, the better to support the inexplicably hopeful final fade-out.
[Adam Nayman, a frequent contributor to "Reverse Shot," reviews films in Toronto for eye Weekly. He has also contributed articles to Saturday Night, Cinema Scope, Montage, and POV.]
By Michael Koresky
Being one of the few remaining film scholars who seems to believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that Spielberg's "Schindler's List" is one of the truly important achievements in Nineties American film, I have no serious Godardian philosophical queries about the representation of genocide, nor do I believe that the overlaying of dramatic urgency by definition nullifies essential human truths. Being able to trust fiction and narrative to bring the tragedies of tucked-away corners of the world to large audiences is one of the great artistic challenges, as well as a critical quandary. Though it seems cheap, shoddy, and dangerous to even presume to call Terry George's steadfast, earnest "Hotel Rwanda" by-the-numbers, its inability to ultimately represent indescribable pain is undeniable. "Hotel Rwanda"'s sloppiness doesn't make it outright dismissible, just an unimaginable missed opportunity.
Yet if there's anything at all subversive about a film so compliant to the Screenwriting 101 handbook, it's that it uses the handiwork of Hollywood to throw its own political guilt back in its face. It's hard to justify all the disgraceful last-minute rescue sequences, the peeking-through-hands views of strewn Tutsi corpses, the best-selling soundtrack-ready score with alternately swelling orchestral music and Wyclef Jean inspirationals, but Terry George uses the tools at his disposal. A film about white Western political indifference told through a series of very serviceable Hollywood-honed clichés feel less like a capitulation to the generics of the movie business than a near-infiltration of the American moviemaking machine. How can a film about the horrific slaughter of 900,000 human beings in just ten days dare to end on a note of immediate reconciliation, even resolution? By taking the guise of a pre-packaged entertainment that will appeal to the very audiences that ten years ago turned their backs on the plight of those deemed "uncivilized" by racist Western definition.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor to Film Comment. He has also written for Cinemascope, Filmmaker, and Westchester Journal News.]