A Review: Hotel Rwanda

The film tells the unnerving story of a hotel manager, Paul, and his family caught up in the Hutu propagandist uprising. It begins in a somewhat neutral tone, where Paul denies the forthcoming Tutsi genocide, which he regards as an obscure possibility. As the narrative progresses, he gradually comes to his senses and seeks means to handle the crisis with as little casualties as possible. Whilst in the early stages of the film he states family was the only thing that mattered, he becomes surrounded by people who require his assistance to keep them alive. As his responsibilities mount sharply, the only sensible course of action appears to be to use his well-honed bargaining power and position as a hotel manager to work through the struggle.

The movie on its own is undoubtedly a Hollywood landmark, holding a unique spot in people’ s hearts worldwide. One might easily write a few brief remarks on its glory and on how it has contributed to the world’s intellectual heritage through helping outsiders to comprehend the happenings of those blood-soaked years. Yet it may not be quite as it seems. With this review, I ultimately intend to bring a different viewpoint to the audience unfamiliar with the criticism around the film and our protagonist.

The starting point is to appreciate the significance of the film. As we think of the audience, we do not envision a bunch of scholars and experts seated in red theater chairs. In fact, the audience is mainly made up of people who have no prior information about the Rwandan genocide and will not bother with follow-up research after viewing the film. Thus, having this film is certainly the only tool that enables such types of audiences to be exposed into these historical occurrences. Meaning that there is more at stake compared to a mere biographical film, given that it holds a great deal of impact and has a potential of manipulation.

What is the nature of the relationship between the audience and the film? Having this question leads us to the so-called “white savior industrial complex” a critical description stating that whites have a sense of obligation to salvage non-whites by liberating, rescuing, or uplifting them (Cammarota, 2011). Indeed, we notice that complex as Paul tells hotel guests to dial up the people whom they know living abroad.

“Call any foreigner you know, tell them what will happen to us. Say goodbye but when you say goodbye, say it as though you’re reaching through and shaking their hand. Let them know if they let go of that hand, you will die (silence). We must shame them into sending help.

Like Landsberg points out, what the film deploys towards its viewers is precisely the same complex, making them become self-conscious regarding their privileged status as a way of evoking in them a sense of obligation (Landsberg, 2015). On a personal level, I do not find this approach suitable for generating a collective understanding. Story itself is based on emotions instead of facts, rendering it as disjointed as a phone call coming from the opposite end of the world. When it comes to catharsis, the movie does an unquestionably good job. It’s fairly easy to get the viewer to feel something- make them cry if I am to be precise – than to make them try to understand what really occurred and the underlying motives.

Given that now we have a better idea of the impact of the film and the approach it takes, time has come to interrogate the authenticity of the facts presented before us.

Regardless of the fact that our protagonist has achieved fame and received multiple awards since the release of the film (Dokotum, 2004), doing so has not been conducive to establishing a consensus

regarding his heroic accomplishments. A book was published by two authors, Alfred Ndahiro and Privat Rutazibwa, featuring testimonies from 74 survivors who resided in the hotel around the time of the film. Those testimonies disclosed the vicious nature of Paul’s doings and lifted the drape of heroism. Within the vast majority of the testimonies, the hardships they encountered as a result of Paul’s actions were illustrated. Forced to pay for rooms, food, and drinks; made to sign vows because they had no money to warrant their repayment at the termination of the genocide; prohibited from calling anyone because Paul owned the telephone rights (Ndahiro and Rutazibwa, 2008).

These testimonies, which all over the place possess capacity to turn the tables, failed to actually alter Western perceptions of Paul. One of the genocide survivors acknowledged this kind of ignorance commenting that “Rusesabagina took advantage of the naivety and ignorance of the Western world” (2008, p. 61) Due to systematically disregarding the voices of the victims, it is no wonder that these people had a feeling of being in a memory contest. Having Rusesabagina become the “real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda” has certainly tainted them in this race. Doubtless, this defeat has had profound implications for them. Kayihura outlines the devastation he and the other survivors suffered upon seeing the cinematic version of their story: “We all felt the need to correct the record, to let the world know what the film had done wrong. But who would listen?” (Kayihura and Zukus, 2014: xxxii).

Filmmaking is most certainly a one way to narrate a story that may not necessarily end up being a true one. Screenwriters might opt to pen a screenplay that translates real happenings into fictitious plots. “Viewers can expect a movie to be like literature. But can a movie be expected to be history?” (Dean, 2008), as Dean says, clearly a film does not owe us a history lesson. Considering that it is by no means charity work, it is necessary to make money, and unfortunately, as David Lubin bluntly put it, “the past…doesn’t buy tickets” (Saab, 2001, p. 715).

This implies that Terry George, the director, could comfortably have avoided a great deal of the criticism by pointing to aesthetic requirements and the distinctive character of the cinematic universe, and yet he has elected to whole-heartedly advocate the truthfulness of the film’s script, declaring that: “To film a true story, you have to compress the timelines, create composite characters and dramatize emotions. When it came to making “Hotel Rwanda” – the story of how Paul Rusesabagina saved the lives of hundreds of people seeking refuge from the 1994 genocide in the hotel he ran – I was obsessed with getting it right” (George, 2006, p. A 25) One may question the reason behind his choice of this route, I suspect it is a strategic aspiration to bolster the impact and worth of the movie.

Indeed, the film employs a well-known label to underline its truthfulness: “Based on a true story,” an ambiguous statement. A true story, as it is stated, but it is not mentioned. Would it be possible to tell a true story based on a mere perspective, most likely discounting other people’s narratives considering that theirs are not adequate to be included as part of a high-budget Hollywood film? Rusesabagina consulted the director and attended various sessions with scriptwriters, now that is a good question to ask. On his biased view, Ndahiro and Rutazibwa declare, “Ultimately, it is he [Rusesabagina] who wrote the screenplay based on his memories. It is he [Rusesabagina], after all, who tells his story and sets up his own statue at the same time” (2008, p. 10).

A further flaw of the script is the omission of context. Primarily focusing on the happenings around Paul and his family, the narration does not supply sufficient historical background information concerning the genocide. On purpose, the film abstains from portraying violence directly, a good way to discourage the fetishization of violence. Still, a few scenes exist that imply acts of violence, obvious works of Hutu authority. Lacking an overall context, the film imposes the irrelevance of violence on its viewers. Taking into account the film’s target audience, the approach it takes to the subject of genocide may very well amplify the prejudiced view that casts all of Africans as being members of archaic and barbaric tribes. Likewise, the usage of beverages, namely beer and scotch, is telling. With that said, let’s all take a second to think what images initially come to mind upon mentioning the word “beer.” A low-cost drink enjoyed primarily by younger generations with little wealth and/or sophistication. Consequently, knowing that it deters people from engaging in acts of violence surely intensifies the prejudice.

Jean-Baptiste Kayigamba, a freelance journalist who survived the hotel, says of the notion that Rusesbagina’s bargaining and diplomatic skills and “a few cigars” were successful in salvaging the hotel refugees, “You’d think he was dealing with overgrown 15 children who, at the bottom of their hearts, are not bad people” (2008, p. 13).

What seems to happen is that the film takes the Hutus to be crude and sub-human, unfit to have and to hold strong, reasoned views and ideologies. While there is and will be no ground to legitimize genocide, there is line between having a reason and acting exclusively to act.

In sum, Hotel Rwanda is hardly the film it proclaims to be, a genuine hero’s tale set in the Rwandan genocide. What is the source of this disappointment is none other than its own exaggerated statements? One might be able to watch and enjoy the film, yet to become a truthful reflection of history, far more effort must surely be put into it. Besides, what is at stake here is by no means a humble historical occurrence, but rather a horrendous international crime, namely genocide. To future viewers, I would advise them not to solely pay attention to the storyline of the film, instead to try to gain a comprehensive insight through profiting from ulterior perspectives.

Lara AKBAŞ 

Uluslararası Hukuk Staj Programı

References:

Cammarota, J. (2011). Blindsided by the Avatar: White Saviors and Allies Out of Hollywood and in Education. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 33(3): 242–259. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714413.2011.585287 

Dokotum, O. O. (2004). Re-membering the Tutsi Genocide in Hotel Rwanda: Negotiating Reality, History, Autobiography and Fiction. Uganda: Kyambogo University.

George, T. (2006). Smearing a Hero: Sad Revisionism Over ‘Hotel Rwanda.’ Washington Post. A25. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2006/05/10/smearing-a-hero-span-classbankheadsad-revisionism-over-hotel-rwandaspan/63b20dbb-fab6-4569-9558-a0be2a8b6eaa/ (February, 2022). 

Kayihura E. and Zukus K. (2014) Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story and Why it Matters. Dallas: TX: Ben Bella Books.

Landsberg A. (2015) Engaging the Past: Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nadahiro, A. and Rutazindwa, P. (2008). Hotel Rwanda: Or the Tutsi Genocide as Seen by Hollywood. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Saab, J. A. (2001) History Goes Hollywood and Vice Versa: Historical Representation and Distortion in American Film. American Quarterly, 53(4), 710-71.

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