2004Director: Terry George
Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte
t's virtually impossible to find anything written anywhere about Hotel Rwanda without seeing it compared Steven Spielberg's film version of Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List. The parallels are strikingly obvious, if unavoidable and a little irresistible. Both films center on financially well-off, socially well-connected men who were struck suddenly by an attack of conscience during terrible chapters in their nations' histories. They risk, and ultimately sacrifice, their achieved statuses to save the lives of many individuals less fortunate than themselves. Consequently, Oskar Schindler and Paul Rusesabagina stand as beacons of hope and human decency amidst unthinkable awfulness. Tested by the most dire of circumstances, they did the right thing.
Though both films received overwhelmingly positive reviews, there are nevertheless critics who challenged Spielberg and George for their filmic treatments of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, respectively. The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, while conceding that Schindler's List was Spielberg's best film up to that point in his career, noted that the film "doesn't so much forgo the shameless and ruthless manipulations of [Spielberg's] earlier work as refine and direct them toward a nobler purpose." Of George's film, The Village Voice's Michael Atkinson wrote, "Hotel Rwanda is as earnest and tasteful as its creators. To capture the white-hot terror of social calamity, someone a little more lawless and fierce might be called for." These are entirely legitimate criticisms of films that may seem inherently critic-proof due to the gravity of their subject matter. They serve to raise questions that don't have easy answers.
First, can any filmmaker ever hope to approximate on film the brutal nature of the historic atrocities that Spielberg and George aimed to capture? Documentary work (Night and Fog, Shoah) aside, the film that I've seen that seems to come the closest is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, and it's practically unwatchable– which is almost certainly the point. Is the only feasible way to approach such matters through saintly (or at least, sainted) light-in-the-darkness figures such as Schindler and Rusesabagina? And, then, what does the choice to explore these events through these particular protagonists say about the directors themselves?
And a $300 suit from Men's Wearhouse goes down the drain...
Spielberg, a Jewish filmmaker, designated as the focal point for his examination of the Holocaust a Christian German war profiteer. George, hailing from Northern Ireland, went with a well-to-do hotel manager from Rwanda's dominant ethnic group. Does their narrative strategy consequently serve to soften the blow for us as the audience? Is it easier for us to relate to these men, who in their heroic dignity seem to rise above the horror surrounding them than it would be to watch a film that casts center-stage the many less-advantaged citizens of Germany or Rwanda? For that matter, does focusing on the small triumphs of Schindler and Rusesabagina minimize the fact that far more people were killed then they were able to save?
Schindler's List is remembered partly as the film that finally won the boy wonder his Oscar, that saw him grow up into the "mature filmmaker" of Amistad and Saving Private Ryan (though this line of thinking conveniently fails to recognize the fact that Spielberg had made both The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun prior to List). Hotel Rwanda is nominated for a trio of Oscars itself (for lead actor Don Cheadle, supporting Actress Sophie Okonedo, both superb in the film and richly deserving of such recognition, and George's script), though it missed the Big One, with the completely worthless period-weepie Finding Neverland nominated in its place. It's received a great deal of press, both in print and on television news programs. The underlying theme of much of this media attention seems be: "My God! This is horrible! How is it that we knew so little, or next-to-nothing, about this up until now?!"
It is in this regard that Hotel Rwanda, above and beyond its aesthetic virtues or flaws, succeeds admirably and where it breaks free from the Schindler's List comparisons. Though it's no doubt important that we continue to reexamine the "how's" and "why's" of the Holocaust, there's a pretty solid understanding of the "what's," "when's" and "where's"; this is far less true of what happened in Rwanda just a decade ago, and indeed is happening today in places like Darfur. George's film never pulls its punch in implicating Westerners (like himself) in the proceedings through their governments' nonintervention. That, and the fact that it finally brings to Western attention the scale and basic context of a genocidal campaign that led to the slaughter of nearly a million people, makes Hotel Rwanda an essential film.
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2005-02-21