hotel rwanda

one of the more effective sequences in hotel rwanda involves an apparently real radio broadcast: a number of rwandans taking shelter in the hotel listen to an u.s state department spokeswoman dance around the word “genocide”–she will say that “acts of genocide” have happened but she won’t use the word itself as a descriptor. the film to some extent is negotiating a similar problem in its own medium. it says “genocide” loud and clear but it shies away from actually showing too much of it. we get a few scenes–never close-up–of people being hacked to death and shot, we see the bodies of the recently killed but the enormity of what happened–close to a million dead, a staggering refugee crisis–largely eludes us until a screen-caption before the end credits tells us about it.

the film-makers may of course be assuming that at this point people know the exact numbers etc.–though i am not sure that is actually true–but the problem is that they do not evoke this larger horror in the film itself; instead the film becomes the story of one man saving the people who have taken shelter in the hotel in which he works. the film is literally enclosed in the hotel, a story of siege rather than slaughter. the refusal to go closer to the carnage may come from the danger of turning it into slasher pornography in the process, and may also be a matter of budget, but it lets the audience off. the rwandan genocide comes to us through mostly rich people holding out in the luxury hotel in which they’ve taken shelter, bribing the army to protect them, calling powerful friends in europe and the u.s to intercede for them. one million people died while this was happening–we see the number at the end of the film but we don’t feel the horror of it.

the political context is sketched in a few sentences. we get an abstract sense that this is somehow the fault of the belgians, but contemporary central african politics, the recent history between tutsis and hutus in rwanda–all these things are left out entirely. the refusal of ex-colonial europe and the u.s to intervene is highlighted and agonized over but what of neighbouring african nations? is postcolonial africa to be understood only in terms of colonial causes and neocolonial hypocrisies? what of african agency? in a sense the film paradoxically reiterates the role of the west as savior–even if it is in a negative sense, in failing to do its “duty” and save rwanda. perhaps the film doesn’t want to over-burden its audience with history but in its absence (to be fair there are nods to it every once in a while) this becomes one more horror film–a (large) family holding out against a mob.

i do not mean to say that the film is not moving in its own right–it is. the question i am struggling with is one the film alludes to: how do you get those who feel completely disconnected from these places, people and events to connect to them? as a cynical cameraman, who has shot some terrible scenes of slaughter, says to the manager, people in europe will watch the footage, say “how horrible” and continue with their dinner. the film’s answer to the question seems to be the generic answer: make them identify with one man and his family. the problem with this i think is that at the end of the film our affective energies are expended in rooting for this family and the narrative loop is closed. how else could this be done? i’m not sure.

12 thoughts on “hotel rwanda”

  1. I wasn’t even rooting for the family (the stakes never felt that strong with the exception of the two nieces but one saw that “happy ending” coming a mile away). Although Don Cheadle is very good in the film (even if his character’s move from apolitical concierge to politicized latter-day saint struck me as trite and uninvolving), I felt disconnected from any sense of history and/or atrocity and found my sympathies (very much in the abstract) siding with the angry and revengful Hutus (who had as much cause for blood-letting revenge as did Beatrice in Kill Bill). Of course genocide is far more complex and unpleasant than anything this film attempts to accomplish. Arnab, I think your thoughtful response to this mediocre yet “noble” film can be connected to other posts on this site where we have wrestled with screen violence, revenge narratives and audience response.

  2. Hey I want to let you guy’s know Hotel Rwanda was a good movie. It was not nice when the totsie and hutto’s were fighting.

    Thank you so much!!!

  3. the president of rwanda says the movie rewrites history.

    “It has nothing to do with Rusesabagina,” Kagame told reporters during a visit to Washington. “He just happened to be there accidentally, and he happened to be surviving because he was not in the category of those being hunted.”

    Kagame said people in the hotel were saved in part because U.N. forces occupied the hotel and because the killers wanted to keep it as a place where they could drink beer after a long day of killing and discuss whom to kill the following day.

    Kagame, a Tutsi, said another reason lives were spared is that talks had been underway between his rebel group and the then-interim government to exchange Tutsis in the hotel for Hutu soldiers captured by his group.

    “Someone is trying to rewrite the history of Rwanda and we cannot accept it,” he said.

    Some survivors of the genocide also have been critical of movies about the slaughter, saying Hollywood got their story wrong.

  4. I just read Philip Gourevitch’s excellent journalistic history of the genocide – _We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families_ — and in it Rusesabagina says almost exactly the same thing–that he was not a hero but an exploiter of accidental circumstances. He *is* clearly heroic, but I think what Kagame has trouble with is not so much Hollywood as the whole damn world’s failure to understand, let alone narrate, let alone intervene or assist against, the genocide. I thought Raoul Peck’s HBO film, Sometime in April did a better job, but… as Gourevitch notes: it’s very hard to imagine genocide. (I do recommend the book.)

  5. i want to read this book, and a book on burma by a journalist who was this morning on NPR. dear encyclopaedic mike, can you tell me the title? it’s got some unlikely western name in the title, a bit like teaching lolita in tehran.

  6. gosh, jeff, you are as good as (maybe even better than) reynolds! have you read it? i want to. she sounds cool. who do you think wrote the book first, she or the lolita/tehran woman? i hate these -ing titles.

  7. Orwell seems to be about a year old (just released in paperback about two months ago). Lolita/Tehran was first published in 2003 (or thereabouts). I amazon.commed it.

  8. Not boy jargon per se, but American consumer/computer geek jargon (which, after all, is probably boy jargon). Anyway, if you go to, you will find you can look up any book title and treat the site as your personal online Books In Print.

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