Who Counts? A Review of Hotel Rwanda

[1] Hotel Rwanda attends, with sensitivity, to the actions of a man and his family in the midst of carnage they do not understand and are powerless to stop. It is Rwanda, 1994. Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), a Hutu, and his Tutsi wife and children, have taken refuge at the Belgian-owned Hotel Des Milles Collines in Kigali, where Paul is the manager. As the genocide erupts in the capital and Tutsis are slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors, the Rusesabaginas’ lives oscillate between moments of familial intimacy-afforded by the hotel’s international status and Paul’s business connections to influential Hutu military and militia members– and a publicity that makes his family a target for extermination by the marauding Interhamwe (the machete-wielding Hutu militia), members of the Hutu army, and even members of his own hotel staff who see the hotel as a sanctuary for Tutsi “cockroaches” and Hutu traitors. Somewhere in the transitions between intimacy and publicity, between Paul as family man and Paul as punctilious four-star hotel manager, we are confronted with the film’s central question: who counts?

[2] An early scene suggests one answer. The rain falls heavily as Hutu and Tutsi refugees, foreign tourists and press, and the recently arrived United Nations and French soldiers fill the courtyard of the Hotel Des Milles Collines. The haunting sound of children singing swells and falls behind images of white foreigners being shuttled onto buses for evacuation by international peacekeeping forces. A group of Rwandan orphans arrives at the hotel gate shepherded by Catholic nuns and priests, their hopes for rescue immediately dashed by the troops’ strict orders: only French nationals. As the children move to the shelter of the hotel-turned-refugee-camp, white faces looking out from the bus windows contort with the complex emotion of shame and relief that comes with the assurance of one’s safety at the expense of others. The black faces-both Hutu and Tutsi-stare out from the hotel’s entrance with a growing sense of resignation: they have been abandoned by the international community. Paul, as hotel manager, solemnly informs the twelve hundred refugees who are now “guests” of the hotel: “There will be no rescue. There will be no intervention force.”

[3] Who counts? In scene after scene, the film reminds us that implicit in that question is an assumption about who decides who counts. We hear voiceover sound bites from an exchange between a Reuters journalist and U.S. State Department spokesperson arguing the semantics of genocide. We are haunted by throughout the film by the serpentine announcer on Hutu Power radio, both exhorting his countrymen to fill the graves with Tutsi “cockroaches” and providing information about Tutsi hideouts and Hutu traitors. And we are caught off guard by the sardonic monologue spit out by the U.N. commanding officer (Nick Nolte) as he shares with Paul the international community’s decision to abandon Rwanda: “You’re dirt, Paul. You’re dung. You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African.” The U.N., the West, and the Hutu extremists decide who counts. And because of their decisions, close to one million lives were lost.

[4] If these were the only answers the film offered, the end for which it was made, it would not live up to its transformative potential. Hotel Rwanda would still deserve our attention for the sheer weight of its burden. But it is transformative because the discounted characters, through their actions and words, reclaim their right to be counted: to be human. This does not require international attention, only the reassuring words of one’s wife: “You are a good man, Paul Rusesabagina.” It does not require concession by those who hate you – only the conviction that their hatred can no longer hurt you: “Shoot me,” Paul instructs the Hutu general. “Shoot me and my family. It would be a blessing.” But more subtly, to claim one’s humanness– to be counted– is to embrace one’s moral agency in whatever form it can assume. To live as fully human beings is to exercise our capacity to affirm possibility in impossible moments. It is to affirm life in the midst of death.

[5] Hotel Rwanda comes to theaters at a time when the specter of genocide has again been raised from the dust of African soil. The names of the rebels, militias, and political parties are different, but the familiar trident lodged in the heart of modern African history– the triple-edged spear of tribalism, neo-colonialism, and land tenure– quivers anew as it plants itself in the shifting sands of western Sudan. Familiar, too, are the political euphemisms of Western governments and the United Nations. Dare we ask again, as one Reuters reporter did of a US official in 1994, “how many acts of genocide does it take to make a genocide?” Despite our culture’s macabre fascination with quantitatively comparing massive humanitarian disasters, reciting escalating death tolls cannot bring us any closer to understanding, much less responding constructively to, the horror of social breakdown.

[6] It must be confronted in its intimate details-the retreat into silence by a young boy who witnessed neighbors slaughtered by the machetes of marauding militia, a husband and father forced to choose at gunpoint to shoot his own family or be shot, a wife and mother who must abandon her orphaned nieces in order to save herself and her children. This is the genocide Hotel Rwanda depicts. And, given the critical acclaim of the film compared to the critical neglect of the genocide itself, this is the Rwandan genocide most Americans will remember. In the end, this, too, fails to bring us closer to comprehending genocide. It is an act of voyeurism that inevitably exploits the melodramatic sensibilities of American moviegoers. But given the continued lack of awareness-despite the recent ten-year anniversary events, several documentaries, and special reports-it may be a necessary act.

[7] For genocide in its many guises strains the human capacity to reconcile the images of massive human violence and humans as the Imago Dei. It tempts us, against our political correctness, to give into selective cynicism. We reserve-counter to the lessons of the twentieth-century history– the goodness of human nature for “civilized” cultures while applying a hermeneutic of madness to the rest. Through this lens the Interhamwe who take up machetes, raping and slaughtering their neighbors, bring to life, and thus confirm, the once-imagined fears of white colonial administrators. White foreigners escape to “civilization” as the heart of darkness implodes. Images of the genocide fit conveniently into this enduring paradigm that rejects the humanity of the African “other” in order to justify conquest, colonization, missionization, neo-colonialism, and abandonment. But Hotel Rwanda does not don the monocle of madness. Instead, it weaves madness and the mundane together, stereoscopically, daring the viewer to distinguish the two, and begging questions about what justice and healing look like for a society caught for so long between the machete and the machine gun.

[8] At first gloss, such an ambivalent interpretation of blame may not seem justified. (The real life Rusesabagina, a Hutu and consultant for the film, refused to pull any punches about the responsibility of Hutu extremists for acts of genocide.) But throughout the film details about Rwanda’s history are offered piecemeal, sometimes explicitly in dialogue, as in the didactic exchange between a Rwandan journalist and an American photographer trying to sort out the origins of Hutu and Tutsi identity. At other times, the violent ebb and flow of Rwanda’s historic power struggles is captured visually: columns of Hutu refugees streaming out from Kigali as the rebel Tutsi army advances to Kigali to restore order. The scene, however, does not give way to the kind of jubilation one expects from the triumphant arrival of the victor and liberator; instead, as Paul and the Des Milles Collines refugees stare out from the back of UN personnel carriers ferrying them against the undertow of fleeing Hutu refugees, a sobering realization settles in: a shift in power resulting in the displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees fearing reprisals serves only to perpetuate the cycle of violence and vengeance that has defined Rwanda’s post-independence history.

[9] Thus questions seemingly so central to it all– what does it mean to be Hutu or Tutsi?; how has Rwanda’s colonial history contributed to the division?; does the infinite regress of violence and vengeance have a source, a starting point long ago from which fragments can be excavated and pieced together into a new story for Rwanda?-these questions remain elusive, and, in some ways, move to the periphery. Despite attempts to pin the blame on feudal caste systems, Belgian colonial administrators, ethnic myths, and regional rivalries, there is no consensus. Even the best-trained scholars have difficulty making sense of the complex socio-historical factors that made the genocide possible. Hotel Rwanda alludes to these questions and their complexity, but, to its credit, does not attempt to offer an answer easily reducible to simple moral dualisms or discrete historical causes. Right and wrong, goodness and evil, are not so much absolute principles or cosmic forces, but the aggregate of actions carried out by moral agents over time and in a variety of situations. In that way, Paul’s heroism-the goodness and rightness of his actions-is built from the ground up as the choices he makes to protect his family draw him into expanded and redefined relationships with refugees as well as business associates-turned-militia leaders.

[10] It is this that makes the film a compelling and necessary response to a repelling and unnecessary horror. The power of Hotel Rwanda is its ability to capture the emotional shock of one million deaths in the lived experience of one family. It is dramatic; it is personal. And, ultimately, it is hopeful without being naïve. We come to experience the magnitude of the genocide largely through the reactions of Paul and his family, rather than numbing images of the dead. Even the film’s most graphic portrayal of the slaughter-the fog lifting at dawn on an endless road littered with the dead– is felt most poignantly in the succeeding scene: an extended shot of Paul unable to tie his tie in the hotel staff room. His composure and style, definitive aspects of his identity and a buffer against the reality of the genocide, has been breached; there is no going back. The enormity of the genocide, compressed within the four walls of the tiny staff room, breaks through the fourth wall, linking the audience and the characters in a human chain that cannot be made by statistics. It must be forged in the deep reaches of the human soul where the grief, shared complicity, and latent hope of human tragedy reside, binding us together across cultures, geography, and time.

[11] Hotel Rwanda forces us to ask again the question of who counts. But ten years and a million lives later, the film does not wait for our answer. Instead, it presses our ear to the freshly turned African soil for the answer. Whether we have ears to hear may determine whether ten years from now a sequel will be necessary.