[box cover]

Hotel Rwanda

Upon agreeing to deploy 5,500 troops to Rwanda on May 17, 1994, Resolution 918 of the United Nations Security Council expressed the "urgent need for coordinated international action to alleviate the suffering of the Rwandan people." Had such action been taken six weeks earlier, it's possible the tiny, landlocked African country wouldn't be etched into 20th century history as a synonym for genocide. Simply put, for all of their good intentions, the United Nations and its member states were too late — the tinderbox of regional political rivalries was lit on April 6, the day that Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana's airplane was shot down while on approach to the Kigali airport. A member of the country's Hutu majority, Habyarimana was engaged in peace accords with political rival Paul Kagame and his Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). To this day, it remains unclear whether it was Hutu radicals or Tutsi rebels who shot down the plane, but the result was virtually a fait accompli. Bolstered by the Hutu-run RTLM radio, the local Hutu militia — the Interhamwe, or "those who stand together" — began systematically killing both members of the country's Tutsi minority and liberal-minded Hutus. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of Rwanda (FAR) did little to interfere with the Interhamwe, far more concerned that Habyarimana's assassination was a prelude to an invasion by the RPF rebels. Even worse, while westerners were rapidly evacuated, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) found its already modest force reduced to a mere 260 soldiers with strict rules of engagement. Citizens of Kigali who could hide, did — and many wound up as unexpected guests at the luxurious Hotel de Mille Collines.

Don Cheadle stars in Hotel Rwanda as Paul Rusesabagina, the house manager of the Hotel de Mille Collines. A Hutu, Paul has little interest in local politics, although he's shrewd enough to show an interest in local politicians, military leaders, and foreign dignitaries. Happy to ply them with single-malt scotch and Cuban cohibas, he presents the Mille Collines as an oasis in the desert, where westerners can enjoy the familiar comforts of home while locals can bask in its relative opulence. But Paul's deference also is designed to curry favor. Far from naive, he understands that the rule of law in Rwanda is often a question of power, and he's spent the better part of his career building up good relations with as many influential people as possible, hoping that someday, if he needs protection, his good reputation will secure himself, his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and his three children. But despite his knack at the subtle art of human relations, Paul fails to suspect the horror that awaits his country after the death of President Habyarimana. Even when a neighbor is taken away in the dead of night by the Armed Forces, Paul places his faith in the government, his corporate employer Sabena, the United Nations, and the west, only to discover that the help he believes will arrive is still far distant. Resorting to street-level politics, Paul negotiates with FAR Gen. Bizimungo (Fana Mokoena) and Interhamwe leader George Rutaganda (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) for protection and supplies. But with nearly 1,000 "guests" hiding in his hotel — mostly Tutsi refugees — he realizes that time is the one commodity he can't buy forever.

*          *          *

Hotel Rwanda is a film that will be watched and re-watched for many years to come, but seeing it on DVD in 2005 for the first time, one can't help but be struck by the fact that Don Cheadle clearly deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor — and probably had no chance of winning it. Jamie Foxx's walk-away with the statuette was all but assured after his remarkable mimicry of blues legend Ray Charles in Ray, while Cheadle's performance contains none of the elements that pleases Oscar: Paul Rusesabagina isn't handicapped, he isn't morally flawed, and even though the character is based on a real person, he isn't famous. But while Foxx took home the hardware thanks to some skilled channeling of a familiar personality, in Rwanda Cheadle is tasked with creating a rich, fully formed individual out of whole cloth. We learn just a few things about Paul at first — that he's a smart hotelier and a loyal family man, with only a few hints that his waters don't run very deep (there's a touch of cynicism to his soft-pedal bribery, and he prefers to ignore the deep-seeded Hutu/Tutsi conflict). But as the genocide increases day after day, his negotiations require an increasing amount of courage — courage we soon realize he never suspected he could summon. Director/co-writer Terry George does a solid job of managing the action, making sure that a somber history lesson doesn't overshadow basic filmmaking — the script barely hints at the initial killings, allowing the horror to unfold mostly from the limited perspective of the hotel's residents — creating a cinematic claustrophobia similar to that found in The Killing Fields. And while name players such as Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jean Reno cross the stage, the bulk of the cast is anchored by African actors, including Sophie Okonedo as Tatiana Rusesabagina, Fana Mokoena as Gen. Bizimungo, and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as George Rutaganda. It's not always pleasant, but Hotel Rwanda ranks as one of the films everyone should see at least once — not only for the intense, personal drama, but also for its unflinching look at the origins and costs of genocide.

MGM's DVD release of Hotel Rwanda offers a crisp anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a commentary track from director Terry George and the film's subject, Paul Rusesabagina, with additional comments from Wyclef Jean (who contributed the song "Million Voices"), while Don Cheadle recorded a second track for selected scenes. Also on board is the behind-the-scenes featurette "A Message of Peace: Making Hotel Rwanda" (28 min.), the additional short documentary "Return to Rwanda" (14 min.), and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—JJB



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