Tuesday, 9 March 2010

We're Here As Peace Keepers, Not As Peace Makers.

I remember, barely, when the unrest in Rwanda was going on back in 1994. I can barely remember the first Gulf War, I was, what, six when that all started going down, so the Rwandan genocide is the first major political and military incident of global importance that touched my consciousness. I was horrified reading what was happening there, seeing images on the news, as much as I didn't understand the historical context or even how these atrocities fit in within the greater sphere of war crimes through history.

So it was with some excitement that I finally approached Hotel Rwanda, it being a film about a period that I could, to some degree, relate to through my own memory, diluted as it is by time and countless other wars and massacres that have filled the intervening years.

Paul (Don Cheadle) is the hotel manager of the Sabena Hôtel des Milles Collines, a Dutch owned hotel in Rwanda. He is a Hutu, married to a Tutsi, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo.) As the Hutu rebellion rises, Paul finds himself in an unlikely position - he is decidedly apolitical, not seeing a racial difference between the Hutus and the Tutsis, or at least not caring about it. As Hotel Manager at this prestigious hotel (which is currently housing the UN) he has many influential friends politically and militarily who afford him respect, partly, I'm sure, due to his ability to supply them with fine scotch and cigars. So as the uprising grows more forceful, and with him being left in charge of the hotel as all foreign nationals flee, the hotel becomes a refuge for Tutsis seeking an escape from the marauding militia.

Amazingly, that paragraph fairly neatly sums up the entire theme of the film. It is a very simple concept, but the individual events that play out within that narrative framework provide a hell of a lot of dramatic tension and keep the story moving inexorably towards what may well be a hideous and bloody finale. Let's not forget that this genocide was epic, a serious and scarily effective policy of ethnic cleansing. Somewhere in the vicinity of a million people were killed over the course of this exercise if my memory serves correct - that's a vast number in quite a short space of time.

It is an important and a powerful film. Cheadle initially looks to struggle with the gravity associated with his role, doing his best to look serious and play the powerful dramatic lead, but settles in to make Paul his own by the end. It's a good performance, if not one for the history books. Okonedo is in control the whole time but spends too much of the film bordering on hysterical, right from the get-go. Nick Nolte as the UN Colonel helping Paul and his refugees out wherever he could was excellent in his brash professionalism, letting his emotions spill over only once or twice and with a perfect pitch. It was Jaoquin Phoenix's foreign journalist, however, who really got me. A very small role, as he departs the hotel his underplayed anger and forceful delivery of the line 'Oh, God, I'm so ashamed' brought tears instantly to my eyes and brings goosebumps back to my arms even now. It is the ultimate in white guilt - where the fuck were we? How could we have let that happen, knowing what was going on moment by moment, especially early on?

All in all, the themes and the steady performances kept the film up to a decent level. Visually, Hotel Rwanda looked quite flat. There was nothing interesting at all in the photography by Robert Fraisse. But the script was good, co-written by director Terry George, who also let the film run itself along, not really interfering to give the story centre stage.

So, not a brilliant film technically, but a strong one emotionally. 4 stars.

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