Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda

Memory, Witness, and Departure

Alone in its genre, this film asks the ancient question of being our brothers' keeper in a way we might actually hear and respond to.

::: Benjamin Thomas

“Each man is his brother’s Cain.” —Primo Levi

The above quote comes from Primo Levi’s last book, The Drowned and the Saved, written a year before his suicide. It is a guilt-plagued account that faces head-on the assault of traumatic memory that pursues those who live with the difficulty of having survived the genocide of the Nazi Holocaust. Levi strove to make evident a truth to be maintained in any discourse on genocide, which is that the true witnesses to it are dead. It is the dead who have experienced the deepest horror of the genocidal impulse. In a very real way, then, it is only the dead who can testify to genocide because they embody it in their graves. But as Levi points out, where does that leave trauma-ridden survivors as they attempt to get in touch with their past—and come to terms with history?

This idea of trauma implicitly comes to light in Hotel Rwanda through the introduction of a witness to the event, not the portrayal of the event itself. Unlike Schindler’s Lists attempt at historicizing genocide, Hotel director Terry George (Some Mother’s Son, The Boxer, In the Name of the Father) steers clear of attempting the impossible by focusing on an isolated event within the much larger context of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. That event is the true story of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina providing asylum for over 1,200 Tutsis and apolitical Hutus from the Hutu militia raging outside the gates of the luxurious Hôtel des Milles Collines.

The film is fraught with tensions that tighten and then eventually unravel within Paul Rusesabagina (amazingly portrayed by Don Cheadle), but the true success of this film lies in its purposeful effort not to showcase gross acts of genocide, but instead to allude to them. The result is a non-didactic film whose visual affect necessarily tugs our emotions in order for the true story and hopefully its lessons to register intellectually. In this way, Hotel Rwanda’s lack of genocidal gruesomeness reinforces the possibility of its true horror, and therefore instates its believability.

In a way, Paul Rusesabagina’s story is that of the traumatized survivor getting in touch with his own history. In Cathy Caruth’s book, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, she identifies the need for the witness to become involved with their historical experience through listening to others and testifying themselves. It is this idea of becoming involved in “a speaking and listening from the site of trauma” that Hotel Rwanda dares you to visit.

In particular, as we listen to Rusesabagina’s testimony we learn the point from which he departs on his tale. Point of departure is crucial in trauma theory when dealing with genocide because it requires taking as a starting point an event that is unrenderable. It follows, therefore, that witnesses’ stories are the only realistic documentation of genocide we have left. The challenge of Hotel Rwanda lies more with the audience than it does with the film, in that we are forced to become (or resist becoming) the therapeutic listener who is trying to listen to Paul’s departure. That is, we are listening to the testimony of a storyteller taking as his starting point an unfathomable story so that the larger, peripheral story of the genocide can come into focus.

In other words, when making a film concerning genocide the question has to be asked, “how do you tell a story about something that is incomprehensible?” In this case, the only workable answer was for Paul Rusesabagina to tell his own.

The most telling example arising from this departure is when European troops arrive at the hotel—but only to take back their respective foreign nationals. No Rwandans, in other words, are allowed to leave. On hearing this, Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), tears off his blue UN beret and throws it to the ground. Angry and red faced, he goes straight to the hotel bar where he makes it clear to Paul that his entire country will soon be abandoned by the Western world. What follows, (grouped with another scene, in which a fleeting picture of President Bill Clinton is shown on the cover of Time magazine) is the most straightforward condemnation the film delivers.

Colonel Oliver turns to Paul and in intended irony says, “we think you’re dirt, Paul. [. . .] You’re black, and you’re not even a nigger, you’re African.” It is during this scene that Paul realizes that the bourgeois hotelier he thinks he’s become, signified by his excellent taste in single-malt scotches, Cuban cigars, and personal connections to powerful Belgians, is one-part patronization and one-part hollow dream. As we watch Paul’s face, it’s almost as if images of colonialism are floating through his mind as he realizes that his postcolonial status is, at that very moment, mere facade.

It is from this point that Paul’s deportment switches from that of a somewhat conflicted Euro-African to the Rwandan he has seemingly forgotten. Apart from a key scene when he falls to the ground in tears (after finding that his vehicle had accidentally driven over hundreds of corpses) this transformation is revealed almost solely through footage of his facial expressions. We witness there the movement from his initial reluctance to house refugees to a determined inclusion of all those he can save as his obligation to the Hôtel des Milles Collines turns into a larger obligation to his people.

The strength of character that emerges within Paul Rusesabagina, and the actions that follow, add an inverted dimension to Primo Levi’s claim. In the deathly world of genocide, victims often do become perpetrators, but Hotel shows us that there is an alternative.

The director firmly refuses to follow the path of most films on this subject. His film gives us no totalizing structure within which genocide is captured, for no such structure exists. It makes no attempt to historicize 1994 in Rwanda, the crumbling of international aid, or the over 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu-moderates who died in the genocide. Instead, it offers one man’s reach back into the recesses of his memory in order to testify to what arose from him when people needed him most. This is the linchpin that holds the film together—its effort to tell one story against the backdrop of a million more. Where a film like Schindler’s List assaults the audience with graphic scenes of horror, Hotel Rwanda opts for a more judicious approach. It seems that Hotel’s pedagogy could end up being its advantage not only in rendering such an important story but also in opening up such a rendition to the largest possible audience.

In our age, being largely catastrophic—running without pause from the Armenian genocide that opened the twentieth century through the Jewish Holocaust and the terror famine of Ukraine to Cambodia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Somalia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and so many others right up to the current crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan—trauma itself may provide a link between cultures. All of us now share the ability to identify with, recall, and listen to the departures we have all taken from ourselves.

Hotel Rwanda begs us to listen. It shows us that although the true witnesses to genocide are gone, those who are still living must testify in order for survival to repeat itself—in order to keep fresh in everyone’s minds the question, “what would you do?”, the question Hotel Rwanda leaves us asking.

Chapter four of Genesis begins with God asking Cain a similar question.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?

If it is a struggle for power that marks our time, it is no new struggle. Hotel Rwanda shows that a large part of our struggle to come to terms with recent mass violence lies in the ways we currently attempt to answer this ancient question. :::

Benjamin Thomas has nearly completed a masters in history and social thought from NYU. He did his thesis on the “Thanatopoliticization of Life in the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda.” He lives in Brooklyn with his hound dog, Hound Dog, and his wife, Wife, who writes all his bios for him. He believes he would make an excellent spy.

Posted by: editor on Mar 16, 2005 | 10:50 am

::: [Phrontpage] ::: [Pheedback on this article] ::: [Philms] ::: [Pheatures] :::