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Hotel Rwanda

Bodies burn hard and are left where they were struck down, like laundry carelessly thrown into a corner. Some streets are so crowded that driving over the carcasses of your neighbors becomes a real chore, and even your 10 mile-per-gallon SUV bogs down as the tires spin on decaying flesh.  
Welcome to the Hotel Rwanda, this generation’s The Killing Fields and the first must-see film of this year. The Rwandan massacre of 1994-95 is a historical blackout, a time the world has willed away from its collective memory, and so Don Cheadle’s brave film seems more startling and fresh than Schindler's List, though the themes are similar.
More than 800,000 people died in Rwanda when the Hutus turned on their Tutsis neighbors. Inflamed by violent rhetoric and the assassination of Hutu President Habyarimana, extremist gangs roamed the street with machetes and machineguns, killing any Tutsi they found. Moderate Hutus like hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) were also persecuted as they were forced to choose between the madness of genocide and the unreliable help of the world police.
The film opens on a Rwanda that is relatively secure and peaceful. Paul is thoroughly Americanized, a man who believes that politics are less important than money and isn’t afraid to grease the palms of visiting diplomats, military leaders and the media. Capitalism is the stabilizing force of the region, and even mafia figures accept the dollar as king, but the world goes insane when Tutsi rebels shoot down President Habyarimana’s plane.
The madness seething beneath the surface of things bubbles up in to the streets, where mob violence rules. Gunshots bring Paul and his family to the gate of their suburban home, where they see their Tutsi neighbor dragged off in military jeep. Paul’s wife and brother-in-law are understandably agitated: They’re Tutsi themselves, but Paul believes the situation is only temporary. 
But every day that follows is worse than the one that came before and it isn’t long before Paul finds himself responsible for the well being of a crowd of Tutsis neighbors.
The film shows show how little separates order from chaos. Paul falls asleep in his bourgeois home and wakes up to the sounds of civil war. One day he’s buying groceries and the next he’s pleading with a mob boss while a group of female Rwandans sit in a wire-mesh cage, naked, pleading for their lives.
The tyranny of the majority and its arbitrary rules are both eerily familiar and utterly strange. This isn’t the Rwanda of our imagination, isn’t a lush tropical African jungle with alien savages running around naked. These characters are fully developed and understandable, which makes the film seem less foreign and strange. What happened in Rwanda could happen anywhere.
If the Hotel Rwanda is about the cruelty of the masses, it’s also about the extraordinary bravery of the average man. Paul is the sort of man who, when faced with a power outage, opens his glove box and withdraws – not a gun – but a flashlight. When the system collapses he initially wants to save only those closest to him, and is drawn into the heroic drama almost against his will, until he’s responsible for nearly a thousand refugees.
The films begs the question, ‘who is your family? Who do you save and whom do you cast out?’ This is a troubling problem for us comfortable Americans, who’ve turned our backs on the slaughter. At one point, when the Americans and Europeans are leaving the hotel for safety, the camera pans the bus and picks out a dog, the not-too-subtle message being that we will save our pets but not our fellow men.
When an American cameraman takes stark footage showing the massacre, Paul is exuberant. This will undoubtedly show the world the horror of the situation, he says. What sane person could see these things and still turn a blind eye? But the American knows his own people – that’s you and me, folks – and tells him, “If people see this footage they will say, ‘Oh my god, that’s awful’ and go back to eating their dinner.
Paul adapts to every terrible revelation with the courage of a man doing what is necessary. When an American UN officer vents to him in frustration that no help is coming because the Rwandan people are not “even niggers” but dirty Africans, he begins canvassing influential people who have stayed at the hotel, looking for someone in a position to help. He urges his fellow refugees to do the same, saying: “We must shame them until they bring us help.”
This is how the film assaults us as well, and it’s a difficult movie to watch. What sort of people can watch something like this unfold and not act? How do we process this information? How do we absorb the horror of a slaughter of this magnitude and still go on in our everyday life? How do we measure a human life against a bottle of whiskey or a dog?
Or do we just ask for extra butter on our popcorn?

 

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