AT THIS TIME, most of us are consumed with images of the tsunami tragedy in South Asia and the eastern shores of Africa. As of now, the official death toll has surpassed 139,000. We are staggered by these numbers, awed by the destruction, as we should be.
Now imagine 800,000 dead in 100 days, but this slaughter caused by human hands. That's what happened in 1994 in Rwanda, when the Hutu majority tribe attacked men, women and children from the minority Tutsi tribe. As we see in the stunning "Hotel Rwanda," they hacked, stabbed, shot and burned one person at a time. The human effort of that, the will it took, to ignore the supplications of one victim and move on to the next. This was no arbitrary washing over of nature. The killing was intentional, specific and horrifying. The world is scrambling now to help the victims of South Asia's watery devastation. But it was largely indifferent in 1994.
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, December 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)
Terry George's movie brings that tragic story home. In the Rwandan capital of Kigali, hotelier Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) has but one purpose in life. As the manager of the Belgian-owned Hotel des Milles Collines, he needs to keep his pampered guests happy. This means an oily kind of savoir-faire, slipping them Cuban cigars or Scotch, and making sure they have enough Heineken beer. The dividends are enormous. But Paul's microcosmic Machiavellian world is eclipsed by shocking events. The Hutu president's plane is shot down under dubious circumstances not long after the national leader has signed a U.N.-brokered peace accord. Hutu radio broadcasters blame the warring Tutsi rebels. And with suspiciously swift retribution, armed Hutus begin killing the minority "cockroaches."
Paul, a Hutu, who does not consider himself a political man, has to become involved. His wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is a Tutsi, which puts his entire family in jeopardy. When close neighbors are executed in his plush neighborhood, Paul and his family retreat to the hotel. The streets run with blood. The tourists leave the country. The United Nations and the U.S. government do nothing to stop the bloodshed. And Paul realizes his country is a no-exit slaughterhouse.
Paul provides refuge to more than a thousand Tutsis, including Red Cross orphans. His luxury resort becomes a sanctuary. And the sophisticated hustle that once served the rich becomes an instrument of humanitarian dimension. Paul has to maintain the morale of his terrified charges, keep tabs on potential informers in his own staff, and give anything he can to former hotel guest and Hutu general George Rutanganda (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), whose goodwill will last precisely as long as the flow of bribes.
It's no surprise that the movie, based on the real story of Rusesabagina, won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and a similar prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It sweeps over you with blunt, unequivocal conviction. Director and co-writer George, who wrote "In the Name of the Father" and directed the 1996 "Some Mother's Son," has no time for artistic restraint. He doesn't shirk from details of the slaughter, nor do he and co-writer Keir Pearson spare the outside world any quarter when it comes to moral responsibility.
"You should spit in my face," says the anguished U.N. peacekeeping general (a memorable Nick Nolte), who informs Paul his few forces are forbidden to even fire their rifles. Soon his soldiers will be gone, too.
In a drama like this, in which widespread genocide is the story, it's vital to center on the actions of significant individuals. It helps us digest and appreciate the large-scale implications. This film isn't about piles of corpses, it's about what the heroes, the cowards and the morally in-between do in a world that has become reduced to that. There are persuasive turns all around, most notably from Okonedo (she was in "Dirty Pretty Things"), Nolte and, in a short but pithy role, Joaquin Phoenix as a jaded cameraman. But there is only one that takes the movie to a higher plane. As Rusesabagina, Cheadle is as African in accent, tone and purpose as any American actor could hope to be. It's the performance of his career. And you can't leave "Hotel Rwanda" without feeling a deep moral urgency for this character and his blighted country, even if it does come heartbreakingly late.
HOTEL RWANDA (PG-13, 121 minutes) -- Contains widespread violence, racial epithets and obscenity. Area theaters.