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.