Research in African Literatures 36.4 (2005) 233-236
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The difference between this outstanding film and many others that have been shot on the subject of the tragic events that took place in Rwanda in 1994 is that Terry George's piece of work is designed or constructed as a fiction, acknowledged and clearly played as such. Indeed, the majority of other films dealing with the topic are set out as "documentaries" manufactured with the ambition to show the events. They are frequently based on testimonies of unequal reliability and doubtful creativity whereby, for example, they would start off showing bone skulls, apparently human, and even qualified as belonging to a particular ethnic group supposedly found in Rwanda. They go on recounting events as reported by survivors or imagined by the media or by collective memories. I would thus venture to propose that the major interest of Hotel Rwanda, for its part, resides in the specificity of fiction. In that regard, the actors are not Rwandans (none of them is, except maybe some of the extras) and the hotel itself keeps only the name of "Hôtel des Mille Collines" (Hotel of the Thousand Hills) while the film is not shot in the actual hotel. The filming was done in the sceneries of South Africa, but all these representations of Hotel Rwanda seem so reliable, painful, terrible, and yet fascinating.
This motion picture has the characteristics of a Hollywoodian production. Performed by film industry stars (the Americans Don Cheadle and Nick Nolte, the British Sophie Okonedo, the French Jean Reno, and other lesser known black actors from the United States and South Africa), it conveys dramatic images that at times are breathtaking in many moments of suspense, unbearable in the portraying of human death, especially hard in the showing of human suffering and fear at the time soon-to-be victims contemplate powerlessly their own execution by assassins. The rhythm of this film evolves with trepidation and tension with many special effects: fire, blood, cars, gunshots, hordes of people, at times clustered together in tiny spaces, in a dire wait for death or for some illusory salvation and rescue. Its main effects, however, result from the proportion or balance that it skillfully succeeds in establishing between fiction and a quasi-journalistic portrayal of historic events. Indeed, Terry George's work in this film (for which he wrote the scenario and directed the shooting) seems to be functioning on a metaphoric level whereby the viewer, regardless of his/her historical, racial, and personal backgrounds, is challenged by the theme thus [End Page 233] subsumed in real or possible events that are conveyed through a well crafted fictional narrative. The film warns from the outset that it is based on true events. It goes on with presenting the contexts that may have generated these events, and then unfolds a narrative recounting the dramatic interval of four months in the history of the conflict in Rwanda: between April and July 1994. The story focuses on the courage and devotion of one particular man, Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the film, admirably played by the Hollywood star Don Cheadle.
During the mass killings that took place in Rwanda in those horrible months of April through July 1994, Paul Rusesabagina took on himself to protect and save his family (his wife and three children, his sister-in-law and her children), which was threatened by the killers. In his efforts to survive and protect his immediate family, Paul Rusesabagina ended up saving hundreds of other people who took refuge at the hotel (Hôtel des Mille Collines) where he worked as house manager.
In order to properly understand or even appreciate the vocabulary used in the film, it is necessary to refer to the historic background on which Terry George's work draws. Some of the terms are loosely used and that may create or contribute to perpetuate many of the clichés that are trailed around about Rwanda...