The repackaging of real-life atrocities as movie entertainment is historically lucrative, but poses a number of challenges. Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields and its 2004 successor, Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, belong to a subgenre (which for the sake of gentle controversy one might call “atrocity porn”) inhabited by the likes of Cry Freedom, Salvador, and Mississippi Burning and lorded over by the granddaddy of them all: Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (unkindly labeled by David Mamet as “Mandingo for Jews”). Such films, inevitably garlanded at awards time, rely on their audiences’ desire to be confronted and emboldened by burning injustice and to have the veil lifted to reveal some (but not all) of the horrors of real-life events which are either too geographically or historically distant to have captured the attention back when they were actually “real life,” or for which TV news provided insufficient dramatization.
The Killing Fields and Hotel Rwanda are both essentially stories of admirable men: the New York Times reporter Sidney Shanberg and Cambodian journalist and interpreter Dith Pran (The Killing Fields) and hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Hotel Rwanda). Based on eyewitness accounts of the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia in 1975, The Killing Fields is split right down the middle: part one is Schamberg’s story of the fall of Phnom Penh, featuring Pran’s attempt at sanctuary at the US Embassy; part two is Pran’s story of his incarceration in (and escape from) a Khmer Rouge forced labor camp, featuring Shanberg back in the U.S. hopelessly trying to locate Pran’s whereabouts. Hotel Rwanda has a simpler structure, Paul Rusesabagina uses his workplace, the luxury Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali, to help shelter over one thousand ethnic Tutsis from being massacred in Hutu reprisals during the 1994 Rwandan conflict. Both films sprang from a desire to tell a very personal, specific and narrow story in order to shed light upon (and commercially exploit) genocide. There is a clearly defined contractual and moral relationship in both cases between the human story and the genocide itself: the former will help expose the world to the latter, whilst the latter will provide the dramatic circumstances for the former to have commercial appeal. As such, genocide is not really the subject of either film, but the sanguinary backdrop to both. Read Julien Allen’s contribution to Reverse Shot’s Stuck in the Middle symposium.