Sorry, 3.5 readers. I have no witty starting lines because this movie is too sad, so let’s move on to the review.
As the manager of the luxurious Hotel des Mille Collines, Paul Rusesabagina has spent his life tending to the needs of the international rich, powerful and politically connected. Diplomats, military men, politicians – all have rested their heads under his roof and over the years. As tensions begin to rise over warring Hutu and Tutsi, Paul wonders if he has done enough favors for the hoi polloi that he might be able to call in some chits of his own should he find a need to get his family out of Dodge.
The social credits Paul has banked come in handy when a tenuous, negotiated peace is broken, and all out carnage begins. Tutsi rebels shoot the Hutu president’s plane out of the sky. Interhamwe, a Hutu militia, responds by passing out machetes like party favors and going on a hack and slash spree on Tutsis, who they openly refer to as “cockroaches.”
Paul (Don Cheadle in perhaps one of his best performances) is a Hutu married to a Tutsi, Tatianna (Sophie Okonedo), and has many Tutsi friends and neighbors. Not every Hutu and Tutsi embraces the rhetoric both sides lob at each other. Many just want to make a living, raise their families and be left alone.
When the machete attacks begin, Paul opens his doors to hundreds, filling the swanky joint to overflowing with Tutsis marked for death, as well as Hutus that Interhamwe believes are not sufficiently supportive of their cause.
It all escalates into a horror show, where Paul comes to believe that the mass genocide of his guests is inevitable, and it’s not a game of saving them permanently but just prolonging the inevitable. A tenuous business friendship with Georges Rutaganda, a product supplier who has long made a hefty profit selling goods to the hotel with Paul as purchaser buys some time. In addition to his day job, Georges is the leader of Interhamwe and the radio voice that whips his followers into a frenzy, pushing them to bloodshed. Georges calls the shots and as long as the hotel keeps operating as a hotel and acting as a cash cow for Georges, he’ll delay the slaughter of the guests while Interhamwe forces hack and slash elsewhere.
Thus, Paul has to keep up appearances. He’s not charging the refugees but has to create phony bills to make it appear as though he is. He has to doctor records to remove names from the system to hide people the militia is looking for by name. He has to negotiate with staff who are ready to walk off the job and flee. A friendship with a Canadian UN General (Nick Nolte) means he might be able to get his guests to safety. A friendship with a Rwandan general might get him some backup that he desperately needs.
It’s all about buying time and using bribes, connections, cajoling, begging, even smooth talking to navigate his way through chaos in the hopes of saving as many people as he can. Add to the mess that he’s trying to locate his lost nieces whose parents have likely perished and its quite a film, a fitting tribute to the real life Paul.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. Sad, both in the film and the real life. One wonders if the UN could have done more. A million people were killed in three months. That’s a frightening number and how sad to know that such hatred can lead to such a massive kill count.
Sidenote – A young Joaquin Phoenix as a cameraman giving us insight to the fact that well, while the West cares, they probably don’t care enough to actually do anything. (It is hard to know what the West could have done here. On the one hand, perhaps a massive coalition of UN forces could have stood between the Hutu and Tutsi and saved lives. On the other hand, we’ve seen in the past 20 years Americans wanted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over in 5 minutes, so I’m not sure we had the collective stomach to engage in an African conflict that might have resulted in years of warfare. I’ll leave it up to the experts to decide.)
Double Sidenote – The movie explains what the difference between Hutu and Tutsi is, something I never knew. Apparently, in the old Belgium colony days, the Belgians selected what they felt were “better looking, more attractive” Rwandans to become a ruling aristocracy, giving them lands, titles, power so long as they kicked money up to the Belgians. The Hutu resented this, seeing the Tutsi as collaborators and sell-outs long after the Belgians left. Sad irony is, as the movie points out, looks are subjective, what is attractive to one might not be attractive to someone else and ultimately, it’s difficult to tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi. The differences are that arbitrary.