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Bonus Points: DVD Reviews

'Hotel Rwanda': Casting Light on Dark Times

By Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005;

"Hotel Rwanda" (PG-13; List price: $26.98
Release Date: April 12

When 800,000 Rwandans were killed in a 1993 civil war that can only be described as genocide, America and the rest of the Western world virtually ignored the crisis. The film "Hotel Rwanda" -- available on DVD next week -- stands as a sobering, cinematic reminder of what a heartless decision that was. Fortunately the Academy Award-nominated movie is about more than political finger-wagging; it also tells the dramatic, all-the-more-compelling-because-it's-true story of Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), a hotelier who risked his own life to harbor refugees from the bands of murderous Hutu Rwandans intent upon eliminating the Tutsis and their sympathizers.

Hotel Rwanda
Hotel Rwanda
Don Cheadle turns in a memorably nuanced performance as Paul Rusesabagina in "Hotel Rwanda." (Frank Connor - United Artists)

_____Rwanda's Recovery_____
Movie Honors Rwandan Hotelier (The Washington Post, Nov. 26, 2004)
Ten Years Later, Rwanda Mourns (The Washington Post, April 8, 2004)
Seeking Healing From the Horror (The Washington Post, April 8, 2004)
Heart of Darkness That Was Rwanda (The Washington Post, March 27, 2004)
Findings Reopen Rwanda's Wounds (The Washington Post, March 24, 2004)
Journalists Sentenced in Rwanda Genocide (The Washington Post, Dec. 4, 2003)
Islam Attracts Genocide Survivors (The Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2004)
The Haunting: A U.N. Commander Remembers (The Washington Post, June 15, 2002)

Appropriately, the DVD takes a serious, conservative approach to its extras. Included on the single disc are the half-hour documentary "A Message for Peace: Making 'Hotel Rwanda'"; "Return to Rwanda," a look at Rusesabagina's return to his native land; commentary from Cheadle on selected scenes from the film; and a full-length commentary by director Terry George and Rusesabagina.

It would have been nice to see more behind-the-scenes footage or to hear from additional survivors of the genocide, many of whom actually worked as background actors on the film. Nevertheless, these bonus features -- particularly the commentaries and "Return to Rwanda" -- succeed in rounding out the viewer's experience, providing a fuller understanding of what really happened during those harrowing 100 days in an African country that, thanks to this film, hopefully won't be forgotten again.

Most Political Bonus Point: Before the film begins, Cheadle provides a 30-second introduction in which he speaks directly to the camera about the current genocide in the Sudan. He closes by suggesting that viewers take action by contributing to Amnesty International (conveniently, an addressed Amnesty envelope comes with the DVD). The introduction cannot be skipped or fast-forwarded through, forcing audiences to hear what Cheadle says. That's fine at first. But when I revved up "Rwanda" for the fourth time to watch an extra feature, I was beginning to wish there was a way to go straight to the menu screen.

Most Worthwile Bonus Point (But One That Requires Some Patience): The George and Rusesabagina commentary may be the most enlightening extra on this DVD. Even when the dialogue gets dull or, occasionally, hard to understand, there is still value in listening to Rusesabagina's reality in tandem with the fictionalized version unfolding onscreen. Whether he's discussing his traumatized son, who "didn't talk for four days" after seeing the dead bodies of several neighbors, or the ineffectiveness of U.N. peacekeepers (he refers to them as "neutral observers"), the man comes across as likable and as noble as Cheadle's Oscar-nominated portrayal of him.

Tackiest Bonus Point: Singer Wyclef Jean -- who wrote the song that plays over the film's closing credits -- joins the commentary in a conversation with George that can be heard while those credits roll. Unfortunately, that causes the track to end on an ill-chosen note; after two hours of sometimes heart-wrenching recollections from Rusesabagina, Wyclef signs off with the words "Buy the album," a reference to the "Hotel Rwanda" soundtrack. At least he didn't tell us to purchase the entire Fugees back catalogue.

If you have feedback about "Bonus Points" or want to suggest a DVD for review, e-mail Jen Chaney.

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