Hotel Rwanda
dir. Terry George
Opens Fri Jan 7.

Near the start of the holiday season, I met the real Paul Rusesabagina on the top floor of the five-star hotel Four Seasons. (A fictional Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, is in the film Hotel Rwanda.) Not tall or short, young or old, richly or poorly clothed, Paul sat in the middle of a white couch describing the horrors he had witnessed during the bloodiest three months of the '90s--between April and June of 1994, nearly a million Rwandans (mostly Tutsis) were butchered (mostly by Hutus).

"It is something that's never easy to explain. It happened so quickly. All of a sudden the dead were everywhere--on the street, in churches, in buses," Rusesabagina said in perfect English (his third language). Despite all of the hard work and talent the actor Cheadle expended on his character, the Rusesabagina in the film is not as elegant as the Rusesabagina in real life. In the movie, he maintains his comfortable position in society by shrewd manipulation of connections in high places, but when you see him in person, it is immediately apparent that he maintained his position not by cunning but by charm.

Now living in Belgium, Rusesabagina was once the general manager of the five-star Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. During the killing months, he kept the hotel open and managed to protect a small number of Tutsis from the death-hungry Hutus who swirled around the tower. "I had thought the Europeans and the UN were going to help us," Rusesabagina said evenly. "I had thought that there was no way they could ignore what was happening in my country. I had studied with Europeans, and they were patrons of the hotel. But when trouble started, they abandoned me."

This is the crux of Hotel Rwanda: Europe's cowardly abandonment of defenseless Africans, and how, despite this great betrayal, Paul did not surrender to the chaos, to the evil that had consumed his fellow tribesmen. He was Africa's Oskar Schindler. Unlike Spielberg's Schindler's List, however, Hotel Rwanda doesn't have a huge budget, which is the primary reason why it's not a great film in terms of both photography and casting (many of the extras do not look like Hutus or Tutsis). It's a film held up entirely by Don Cheadle, whose portrayal of an African is, for a black American, second only to Canada Lee's in the 1951 adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country. Nothing in Cheadle's voice even hints at the fact that he was born in Kansas City--it really is an impressive performance.

Near the end of the film, Cheadle runs up to the top of Hotel Milles Collines and looks down, trying to find his wife and kids among the living and dead bodies on the grounds surrounding the building. The scene has a real echo in the amateur video footage of a luxury hotel in Sri Lanka being hit by a tsunami on December 26. From the top floor, we see on the flooded grounds the bodies of those who have and have not been spared by the force of the sea. But even with all its destructive powers, nature could not match the number of those who were killed by humans in Rwanda.

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