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Hotel Rwanda

Synopsis

As Hutu extremists hunt down and brutally murder their Tutsi neighbors, Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu whose own marriage crosses ethnic lines, finds himself responsible for hundreds of Tutsi and other refugees, forcing him to step up as the central player in a desperate struggle to save lives in the midst of madness and carnage.

Historical Context

Hotel Rwanda takes place from the period just before the Rwandan genocide began on April 6, 1994 and ends a few days after June 18, 1994, when the Milles Collines Hotel (featured in the film) was evacuated. This was the height of the Rwandan Genocide in Kigali, which, as the film notes, was sparked by the assassination of the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana. As noted by Mahmood Mamdani, the Belgians had elevated the Tutsi minorities in Rwanda above the Hutus based on a perceived racial superiority. After independence, Tutsis were forced out of the country by the pro-Hutu majority government, which began a policy of discrimination against the Tutsi. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), composed of Tutsi refugees in neighboring Uganda, declared war on Rwanda in 1990 and, by 1993, a power-sharing arrangement had been agreed upon between Hutus and Tutsis. It is unknown who killed Habyarimana; some have alleged that it was the RPF and others have claimed it was Hutu radicals. Regardless, in the next 100 days, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsis, Hutus and others were brutally killed.

FilmStory

As historical subjects with great relevance to contemporary African politics, the real-life Paul Rusesabagina and the events depicted in Hotel Rwanda have come under considerable criticism from the current Rwandan government. At the same time, that RPF government led by Paul Kagame, though it commands a great deal of political and moral capital for having put an end to the genocide, has its own numerous critics. Rusesabagina has been vocal in his claims that the RPF government is a corrupt one that elevates Tutsis above Hutus and stifles dissent. In turn, the RPF government claims that Paul charged money to those he sheltered in the hotel and has used his activities in the genocide as an opportunity for fame. It is hard to know which of those accusations is true, but what is true is that the country today has one of the lowest press freedom rankings in the world.

It has only been in recent years that Paul Rusesabagina (and, by extension, the film Hotel Rwanda) has encountered the level of criticism that has been thrown at him. As Romeo Dallaire has noted, Rusesabagina was simply one person among many who were involved in saving lives. For example, no movie has been made about Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese peacekeeper who smuggled hundreds of people past militia checkpoints during the genocide, despite having no mandate to do so. Perhaps elevating Rusesabagina’s one story does come at the expense of others—or perhaps there are yet more stories to be told from this dark chapter of Rwandan history.

Historical Accuracy

In terms of factual accuracy, Hotel Rwanda does a fairly good job. The movie looks at the genocide through the perspective of Paul Rusesabagina; as such, it is not an overview of the genocide, but a personal look at the events. Nuances of the genocide portrayed accurately include such details as the radio broadcasts from the station RTLM frequently heard. RTLM was a real station in Kigali that incited its listeners to kill Tutsis and would report Tutsi locations on-air. Most killings in Rwanda were conducted by mobs of people armed with machetes, often attacking their Tutsi neighbors and any sympathetic Hutus. Much of the violence is toned down for the movie; as the real Paul Rusesabagina noted, it was simply too extreme to show without alienating most of the audience.

The movie does miss on a few counts. In particular, Nick Nolte plays a U.N. peacekeeper loosely modeled on General Romeo Dallaire. However, neither Nick Nolte nor the producers consulted with Dallaire on the portrayal; Dallaire was somewhat insulted by Nolte’s depiction, stating “It sounds like Mr. Nolte did a fine job of portraying himself.” Dallaire has also disputed Paul Rugesabagina’s role in saving lives, noting that, while he was helpful, there were also 8 UN observers bringing refugees to the hotel. Some events depicted as happening to Paul’s family were instead fictional events inserted to increase dramatic tension, specifically the scene in which he abruptly leaves them before they depart on a convoy.

~Zeb Larson

Select Resources

Gouerevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We will be Killed with our Families. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
This is the book that was used as a basis for adapting Hotel Rwanda. It’s a good introduction to the events and it’s well-written, though it’s a bit lacking in its explanation of why the genocide happened. Gourevitch could also stand to hold the RPF up to a bit more scrutiny.

Mamdani, Mahmood. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Probably the best book currently in existence on the genocide. Mamdani examines how the identities created by the Belgians helped to fuel the genocide in Rwanda and how these identities shape behavior elsewhere in Africa.

Prunier, Gerard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Another academic and well-written history of the genocide.

Dallaire, Romeo. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2003.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Dallaire, who despite saving thousands of lives must live with the knowledge that he failed or was unable to save more. This is a good perspective on where the international community failed in Rwanda.

Rusesabagina, Paul. An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography. New York, New York: Viking, 2006.

“Ghosts of Rwanda.” PBS Frontline.