Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Day 4: Hotel Rwanda

Brian Wilson: Help Rwanda, help help Rwanda.

I’m against genocides. I’d like to state that up front, just so there’s no confusion. In fact, to my mind, genocides are among the most vile and disgusting things that human beings do to one another. Hotel Rwanda is a movie about an attempted genocide in the country of Rwanda, one that took place while I was in high school and, due to the fine, fine journalism we have here in the United States, an attempted genocide I had little knowledge about prior to watching the movie. The movie plays a little like Schindler’s List in Africa, though it lacks a lot Schindler’s weight and panache and substitutes for these things a few genre tropes borrowed from other movies and filtered down to a PG-13 rating. It’s based on a true story, but doesn’t get into much of the nitty gritty that would make it feel as if it was based on a true story. The movie is certainly compelling and has a fantastic lead performance by Don Cheadle, but ultimately feels too pat, too safe, and too pandering.

Don Cheadle plays (pardon me as I check IMDB for the proper spelling here) Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a Belgian-owned hotel in Rwanda that caters to wealthy clientele. There is a growing conflict between the Hutu people of Rwanda and the Tutsis, divisions among the people created, we are told, by the Belgians who used to run the country. Paul happens to be a Hutu, but we see very early on that he has no particular allegiance to this group, beyond what they can provide for the hotel. His job gives him access to many important political figures and he is very good at giving these people the sense of refinement they feel they are due. Through Paul’s dealing with these people, the political situation in Rwanda is efficiently delineated and we get a sense of the arbitrary, yet deadly, nature of the conflict. When things turn serious, Paul will turn to all of his associates on both sides of the conflict for aid and, more often than not, he is able, through bribery and bluffing to get it.

And, thankfully, things turn serious pretty quickly. We get a sense of Paul’s love for his family, for his belief in style and money as problem solvers, and the people he is connected to, and then, an order is given and the Hutus begin slaughtering the Tutsis. Paul’s wife and, by extension, his children, are Tutsis so, naturally, they must run, lest they be caught and killed. They eventually wind up at the hotel where they begin sheltering refugees from the conflict, surrounded on all sides by Hutu militants bent on killing them.

The rest of the movie details Paul’s attempt to keep the handful of refugees, particularly his family, at the hotel alive while planning for an escape. As he does this, the movie turns the screws on Paul pretty well and Cheadle is more than up to the challenge of expressing this. His anguish and fear is palatable and ratchets up nicely with each new obstacle until, at the characters lowest point, he begs for a solider to shoot him, telling him that it would be a blessing to be dead. In another moment after being confronted with the extent to which the atrocities in his country are occurring, Paul struggles to tie his tie and Cheadle shows first the amusement that such a simple act should give him trouble, then the frustration, until finally, he vents his anger, fear, and frustration at the clothes he is wearing.

These are nice moments, both hinging on Cheadle’s performance. This is where the movie succeeds. Where it fails is, I think, is in a certain lack of cinematic aggression. From what I know about it, the Rwandan genocide was a horrific event. Much of the killing was done by machetes. Machetes! That would hurt! One of the characters says “The machete is an awful way to die.” I would agree, but the movie provides nothing to support this. Despite a nicely implied moment where we witness through Paul’s eyes some rape cages, there’s a curious coyness to the movie about cruelty, barbarism, and sheer human awfulness. A moment that seems lifted from The Killing Fields shows us the extent of the damage, but there’s nothing, really, showing us the cause.

If this seems like I’m wishing for a movie that depicted more cruelty for the sake of displaying cruelty, I’m not. I just can’t get over this feeling of patness to the whole thing and am trying to pinpoint certain areas that seemed lacking. It may be that the character of Paul (who, I’m aware, was a real guy) never engages with any serious moral decisions. There’s a moment where he leaves his family that comes close, but the movie (and, I suppose, life) give him the opportunity to retract this decision that takes away whatever weight that decision had earlier. There’s a feeling of “Paul and his people good, other people bad” that seems far too black and white to truly reflect the situation at hand.

Additionally, at many points in the film, I was thinking of Assault on Precinct 13, Night of the Living Dead, a handful of other zombie movies, Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields, and The Road Warrior. This movie is aiming higher than many of those movies were, but could have used some of what they offered to intensify the conflict, cinematically. All of these movies have the distinction of depicting their conflicts to extremes, often grotesque, to ratchet up the viewer’s empathy for the besieged. Here, I felt a remove most of the time. I was watching a really well made recreation of an event, but never got right down into the dirt, the mud, the blood.

I liked this movie while I was watching it. I think it’s admirable for trying to bring attention to a conflict many Americans weren’t aware of. After I watched it, though, I felt a little conflicted about my feelings. I wondered about the PG-13 rating, wondered if the movie was toned down in an attempt to bring its message to a larger audience. I wondered if it was worth it. Liberal white guilt says, yes. The cinephile says no.


adrian said...

thanks for the review. When Robert saw it he said the score was too in-your-face-weepy-melodramatic. I'm really affected by the way filmmakers choose to use music. I usually get angry when they miss an opportunity to score something good. I think thats why I havent seen it yet. I know you're into film scores what, did you think about it? I am also surprised that its PG-13. I think I will keep this one at the bottom of my list.

David Wester said...

I, surprisingly, didn't really pay attention to the score. My memory is that it worked at times, but other times it was definately too over-the-top weepy. It was, though, a symptom of a larger problem in the film. When the music got too weepy, there were many other things in the film going on that were also too weepy so that's probably why it didn't stand out for me. I think the movie's definately worth a view, if only, for Cheadle, educational purposes and the apocalyptic thrill of society breaking down (something I always find compelling) but, yeah, there are better movies out there. And a better movie needs to be made about this conflict (probably already has).

Ash Karreau said...

You think this movie's bad? You should see Shake Hands With The Devil.

Anonymous said...

You need zombie gore for the effects of genocide to hit home? You, sir, are a complete fucking idiot.

David Wester said...

I need the movie to take risks to be more compelling. How 'bout that?

Craig C said...

Gotta love people who have the balls to post on an already too caliginous forum like the internet as Anonymous.

Not a great movie but I thought Tears of the Sun was a lot more visceral than HR. I can understand your reservations.

M. Gants v4.0 said...

I finally saw Hotel Rwanda this past weekend. Holy terrible things Batman. I liked the movie - I thought it did a good job portraying the situation within a decent amount of time. The interviews w/ the real Paul B. were interesting too.

Issues of hatred and racism always make me mad - and disgusted when they flare into genocide.

I was angered that the Belgians would create a rift between Rwanda's people based solely on physical attributes. Even more tragic was the fact that the Rwandans continued to foster that rift after the Belgians left.