Hotel Rwanda

We finally had a chance today to see Hotel Rwanda, the cinematic adaptation of the story of the urbane hotel manager who housed and protected people who sought refuge in the luxurious Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali.

If there is a story designed for the Hollywood heroic-individual-does-what-they-said-could-not-be-done treatment, probably it is the story of Paul Rusesabagina, who cobbled together connections, inside information, what bribery he could muster and good will to protect people who every major institution, from powerful countries and the United Nations to established religions, outrageously failed to stand up for. Together with the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, repeatedly undercut by a scandalously indifferent UN bureaucracy, Mr Rusesabagina is one of the few genuine candidates for hero status from the Rwandan genocide. The film prefers Mr Rusesabagina's modest heroism to Mr Dallaire's tragic mode. While Mr Dallaire is demoted to colonel and suffers the further indignity of being played by Nick Nolte, Don Cheadle's Rusesabagina functions at all times as the embodiment of every middle-class virtue a viewer can imagine.

One can only complain so much about the Hollywood treatment. The film is not a documentary and does not pretend to offer a reliable historical record. There have been documentaries, which were sparsely watched. I have taught enough courses in which the explanation of Rwanda has to begin with "where is Africa?" that I am accepting of a little melodrama as the price of getting information out. Still, two things disturbed me. One was the individualistic mode of storytelling in which a few big figures seemed to direct the activity of others (refuge seekers, killers) who matter crucially but do little. In the context, it is confusing. The second is the "plot resolution" at the end, in which a couple of ICTR verdicts are deployed to imply that everything has been resolved and justice done. Anyone who has followed the ICTR and domestic initiatives knows how incomplete this is.

Still, it is a film more likely to enlighten than mislead, and is considerably less sanitized and ideological than the average political thriller. When we left the theatre, there were students outside handing out leaflets proclaiming "Prevent 'Hotel Darfur'." But we know how that story comes out: it was not prevented and nobody will be defended. Maybe afterward somebody in entertainment or journalism will find another heroic individual to celebrate, and everybody can feel a little bit better that such a person exists and immensely relieved that it is someone else.

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