Reviewing Hotel Rwanda
By A.D. Freudenheim  

23 January 2005

See “Hotel Rwanda.” The movie is a wonderful retelling of a horrible, and horribly true, story, but it is also a hopeful movie, even in the hopelessness of the underlying events. “Hotel Rwanda” reminds us of how we – all of us, if we consider ourselves caring citizens of the world – should bear more responsibility for our fellow humans, and it shows what can be done with acting, with effective portrayals of human emotion as a means of story telling and to convey meaning.


As a Jew, surrounded by a community and a society that says, repeatedly, that “we must never forget” – referring, of course, to the Holocaust – “Hotel Rwanda” reminds us that we forgot.

I count myself among what seems to be a very small group of Jews who absolutely hated Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List,” the 1993 movie about how the German manufacturer Oskar Schindler saved more than one thousand Jews during World War II by exploiting their labor in exchange for protection. Much of what bothered me about “Schindler’s List” was what so many others apparently found oddly moving and meaningful about it: its depictions of the violence, horror and degradation that was the Nazi-driven Holocaust of the Jews. Audiences seemed to feel that the movie gave them an understanding of the Holocaust that they were not capable of before.

But how can one truly recreate, in cinematic form, the horrors of Auschwitz or other camps? One cannot. Or, using actors, can one show the emaciated frames of humans brought to the edge between starvation and death? Not possible. Or convey the depths of the sadism and masochism and – simply – evil that was at the heart of the Nazi regime, through clever cinematography and black-and-white tinted scenes of people being shot at close range, consigned to death in poisonous showers, or raped or tortured? No. For me, “Schindler’s List” failed because it tried to recreate what cannot be recreated; because in striving for such vivid cinematic realism it ended, inevitably, with caricature, with sound stage violence taking the place of words and emotions from the actors themselves.[1]

This is where “Hotel Rwanda” is so successful. Actor Don Cheadle conveys worry, fear, love, and hope through great acting, as does the rest of the terrific cast. Director Terry George mostly skipped trying to depict humans slaughtering humans with machetes – the weapon of choice in the Rwandan genocide – and instead simply showed the many, many dead, and left the rest to the words spoken by the actors, to the emotion they showed, and to the imagination of the audience. Even in the most gruesome and disturbing scene in the movie – where a slow-clearing mist reveals a road strewn with hundreds of thousands of Tutsi dead – the bodies are not shown in true close-up and their wounds are evident but not detailed. What matters in this movie is the murder of civilians, not the method behind it. What “Hotel Rwanda” wants us to remember is that some people did try to stop the murders, and stand up to the murderers, and that they valued all human life, regardless of tribe – and that more of us should have done the same.


A movie like “Hotel Rwanda” leaves me trying to place the events of 1994 Rwanda in some kind of historical context, to ask questions like: What does this movie say about Africa or Africans, that they could commit such acts against their friends, neighbors, and innocent strangers? What does it say about the so-called “West,” that wealthy nations – knowing that the slaughter was taking place – mostly did nothing, and that they also directed the United Nations to do nothing? How, in 1994, with the world watching, could this happen?

The history of the Rwandan division between Hutus and Tutsis is a legacy of Belgium’s colonial control over that part of Africa, and as I watched the movie I started to wonder whether the (civil) wars that have taken place in Africa over the last 50 years are a kind of catching-up of African nations with the brutality of their European neighbors to the north. Europe went through two world wars – two massive wars that that left millions dead – before figuring out that war was not the answer to their problems. Was it somehow necessary for all of Africa to experience devastation of an equal or greater nature in order to absorb the same lessons? A horrible and gruesome thesis, and one undermined by the reality of Europe’s post-World War II history, from the forced starvations of Stalin’s Russia to the merciless totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe to the Yugoslavian wars of the last decade which were only belatedly stopped. The pedestal the Western powers believe they occupy as peace keepers is lower than they would like to think.

Perhaps a lingering after-effect of colonialism was an unfair advancement of the wrong aspects of civilization. The departure of Europeans from Africa left a legacy of better and more murderous weaponry, but largely without stronger infrastructure, education or health care, or local government. Without these, citizens and societies cannot improve, cycles of poverty seem endless, while civil wars for control – and all that it brings with it – become self-perpetuating.

This, too, is an unappealing thesis, one that must rely on a belief that Africans are somehow less civilized or socialized than the Europeans who once tried to rule them. After all, if they were more advanced, would they not be less likely to murder each other with machetes? Not really. Which is to say, yes, they might murder each other less if their communities and social structures were more stable, but this would not be because they are more “advanced” – rather, it would likely make Africans of all tribes and all nations less impoverished and less desperate, and hence less susceptible to manipulation by leaders who would rather blame others for their own failures. It was in just such an environment of depression and despair that post-World War I Germany was seized by Hitler and the Nazi party, and that a minority of European Jews were murdered by their friends and neighbors as the scapegoat for all that was wrong with German, and European, civilization.


In Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book “The Shadow of the Sun,” a collection of essays about his experiences in Africa over many years, he writes in the preface that “except as a geographical appellation … Africa does not exist.”[2] I have quoted this before because it seems so apt, a basic and often overlooked acknowledgment that the many peoples of that continent deserve better treatment and respect than they have received from the rest of the world. “Hotel Rwanda” is more than just a movie showing us – once again – how capable man is of ruthlessness and brutality. The movie is an effective reminder of the truth behind Kapuscinski’s concern: that we, in the West, have too little understanding and too little respect for African lives of all kinds.

[1] Alas, probably because Spielberg is Jewish, and because he has given money to fund Holocaust history projects, and because the subject of the film is the Holocaust ... as with many Holocaust-related things, few were willing to criticize him or the movie very publicly, for fear of aiding the efforts of the neo-Nazis or Holocaust-deniers. Alas, another instance of not wanting to air one’s dirty laundry in public just when such an airing might have helped.
[2] “The Shadow of the Sun,” by Ryszard Kapuscinski, translated by Klara Glowczewska, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001.
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