Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina, who played an instrumental role in saving the lives of more than a thousand Tutsis during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Rusesabagina, a Hutu, was an Assistant Manager at des Mille Collines, a luxury 4-star hotel. He was married to a Tutsi woman, Tatiana and lived in a predominantly Tutsi colony. With the death of Habariyama, the Hutus led by the Interahamwe commenced attack upon the Tutsis, and Rusesabagina, who had initially been concerned only with the safety of his own family, found himself sheltering his friends and neighbors as well. He decided to move them into the hotel, which housed many foreigners including humanitarian personnel and journalists, played host to important Rwandan officials, and was under the protection of the UNAMIR peacekeepers.

The Hotel became a place of refuge for other Tutsis as well, despite the shattering of the initial expectation that it would be further secured by armed personnel sent by the United Nations. Troops arrived only to escort the foreigners out of the country, leaving the Rwandan refugees behind. The UN and the international community, with the exception of the UNAMIR peacekeepers just turned a blind eye on the genocide.

It thus fell to the few UNAMIR personnel– who as peace-keepers, were not allowed to use force except in self-defense; and to Rusesabagina whose Hutu identity provided little protection as he was branded a traitor to the Hutu community for sheltering Tutsis, and indeed on one occasion his wife was severely beaten “for his crimes” and would have been killed had the UN peacekeepers not intervened.

Rusesabagina staved off the many Hutu attacks upon his person, his family and friends and the hotel premises with an arsenal composed of diplomatic skills, contacts among influential Rwandans and a stock of fine scotch whisky to use as bribes. Finally the UNAMIR was able to arrange for a deal whereby the Hutus would exchange their prisoners for those held by the Tutsis and Rusesabagina was able to retreat behind the lines of the Tutsi army, the Rwanda Protection Force, with his family, friends, hotel staff and others.

Rusesabagina was honoured for his courage and heroism with the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

The film captures this tale very effectively, and succeeds in providing an emphatic, though understated window into the horrors of the genocide. In its two hours playing time it sketches the movement from apprehension to despair as the characters move from bewilderment at the reports of Habariyama’s killing, to hope that they will be saved by timely foreign assistance to the growing certainty of their own death. Indeed this translation is most poignant in the scene where the refugees discover that the armed UN troops have come to evacuate only the foreign guests.

Furthermore it avoids portraying the Tutis as objects of pity – indeed what comes out most clearly is their resourcefulness in face of imminent death and their contempt for the West which has failed to assist them. In one marvelous scene Rusesabagina suggests that they call up their connections in Western countries and bid them good bye in an effort to shame them into acting – the image you are thus left with is thus of ordinary people reaching out to other ordinary people, not piteous victims looking towards resplendent saviors of the world.

The film also attempts to place provide the context for the violence, it lays out the background for the ethnic divisions between the Hutus and Tutsis. While the period of focus does not extend to the aftermath of this genocide – the coming into power of the Tutsi government and the Tutsi reprisals against Hutu refugees in Congo are not touched upon, it does address the foregoing period where Hutu citizens are exhorted by the government to make common cause against Tutsis who are characterized as rebels and rogues. The incendiary speeches made through the Radio Liberty, the Interhamwe rallies etc are showcased.

The film speaks for itself and it makes its points very effectively. Amnesty International has endorsed the movie, in the hope that it troubles its audience out of indifference towards other such situations and has designed a specific model for a Hotel Rwanda Houseparty to ensure wider viewer-ship of the film and the issues it raises in the hope that this will draw attention to the genocide in Darfur.

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