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The Rwandan conflict of the 1990s marked one of the bloodiest chapters in recent African history. The genocide was made all the more tragic by the fact that most of the world chose to ignore the conflict and the plight of the Rwandan people. While occasional reports about “tribal warfare” in Rwanda were carried by international news agencies, the horror of the conflict, instead of causing international outrage, seemed to be written off as another “third world incident” and not worthy of attention. Hotel Rwanda is the story of one man’s pivotal and noble role in that bloody moment of history. 

Over the course of 100 days, almost one million people were killed in Rwanda. The streets of the capital city of Kigali ran red with rivers of blood, but no one came to help. There was no international intervention in Rwanda, no expeditionary forces, no coalition of the willing. There was no international aid for Rwanda. Rwanda’s Hutu extremists slaughtered their Tutsi neighbours and any moderate Hutus who stood in their way, and the world left them to it. (Ed: Arguably this failure by the UN to act diminished its stature, its authority and the confidence of the free world in that body, leaving the role of world police to the US. Witness Iraq a decade later…)

"...shame us all by their decency and bravery"

“Ten years on, politicians from around the world have made the pilgrimage to Rwanda to ask for forgiveness from the survivors, and once more the same politicians promise ‘never again,’” says director Terry George. “But it’s happening yet again in Sudan, or the Congo, or some Godforsaken place where life is worth less than dirt. Places where men and women like Paul and Tatiana Ruisesabagina (whose story is told in Hotel Rwanda) shame us all by their decency and bravery.”

Wars have always provided fertile ground for the emergence of heroes and supreme acts of heroism by ordinary people. Rwanda was no exception. Amidst the horrendous violence and chaos that swept the country, one of the many heroes to emerge was Paul Rusesabagina, an ordinary man who, out of love and compassion, managed to save the lives of 1268 people. 

Terry George had long been interested in doing a film set in Africa, but it was Paul Rusesabagina’s story that finally brought him to the continent. “When my co-writer Keir Peirson introduced me to the story, I immediately knew I wanted to do it,” says George. “I flew to Belgium and met Paul and learned of his life: how he became a hotelier, how he rose through the ranks of employees in the various Sabena hotels he worked in, and how he ended up at the Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali.” 

“Keir Peirson and I sat around a table with Paul Rusesabagina and listened as he told us his story. As he spoke, I did my best to hide two conflicting emotions: excitement and fear. Excitement because it was a perfect story to be told on film – a riveting political thriller, a deeply moving romance, and, most of all, a universal story of the triumph of a good man over evil. But fear was my predominant emotion. Fear of failure.

“I knew if we got this story right and got it made, it would have audiences from Peoria to Pretoria cheering for a real African hero who fought to save lives in a hell we would not dare to invent.”

It was the remarkable human element of the story that struck a chord with Hotel Rwanda producer Alex Ho. “This story is very close to my heart, and it’s the kind of story I really appreciate,” he says. “It’s about a normal man who, when prompted by his wife, is able to use his position to help others. In the course of doing that, he sets out on a journey that makes him a better man.”

"listen to their stories"

In January 2003, Terry George travelled to Rwanda to research the story and familiarize himself with the country. “I was also looking for answers,” says George. “Why the genocide? Why were so many people murdered in the space of 100 days, the fastest genocide in modern history? I also wanted to get a sense of the ordinary people of Rwanda and listen to their stories. George was accompanied on his visit by Paul Rusesabagina. It was the first time Paul had returned to Rwanda since the atrocities. 

While in Rwanda they were able to travel, film the various locations and meet many of the people who took refuge at the Milles Collines hotel, including Odette Nyrimilimo, her husband Jean Baptiste Gacacere, and various members of Paul’s family. “It was a unique privilege to visit Rwanda with Paul,” says George, “to get a sense of the love and admiration people had for him. When we walked back into the Hotel Mille Collines, we met many of the survivors, cooks, cleaners, people Paul had sheltered. There was true joy in their eyes.” 

Though many of George’s experiences in Rwanda were positive and he took inspiration from the many people he met, nothing could have prepared him for what he experienced when visiting one of the massacre sites. “We paid a visit to a former technical college at Marambi in Southern Rwanda,” says George. “I passed through rooms filled with the mummified skeletons of some of the 40,000 people who were massacred over four days in April 1994. As I listened to the sole survivor of that massacre tell of those days, I truly felt there was nothing more important in my life than to make this film.”

In visiting Rwanda, George was also able to see the incredible beauty of Rwanda and to investigate the politics of the extremist Hutu government, how their radio station RTML spewed forth hate and venom towards the Tutsi (Ed: another familiar element from conflicts such as in Iraq) and how prejudice and fear drove ordinary people to believe that they had to massacre their neighbours in order to preserve their existence. “If I had to point to the one factor that sparked this genocide,” says George, “it was that radio station. We feature that radio station as a character in the film. I need people to understand the power of that propaganda.”

"an emotional distillation of the events and facts"

When adapting Hotel Rwanda for the screen, it was important to George and Peirson that the film not be structured or perceived as a documentary, but rather an emotional distillation of the events and facts of Paul’s life that gives the audience an intimate, insider’s view of the events that took place at the Hotel Mille Collines at the time. “I find it most important to tell a story based on character and the evolution of that character, as well as the strengths of the character,” says George. “We have highlighted the particular events that formulated his triumph – his ability to succeed in the face of overwhelming odds. I enjoy my work best when it’s a project that will enlighten and hopefully invigorate people.” 

Hotel Rwanda is, for the most part, a deeply personal story, and it’s uniquely focused on one building (the hotel), the people within it, and the relationships between them. The filmmakers deliberately avoided focusing on the overwhelming horror of the genocide itself. “When the film ventures outside into Kigali during the genocide, we tried to create this bizarre, surreal atmosphere, to let viewers feel the psychological terror of the genocide without going close on the slaughter.” Says Alex Ho, “This is a powerful human drama, not a horror story, and we believe it is important that the widest possible audience should see it.” 

Terry George’s passion for the story was what first impressed Don Cheadle and attracted him to the project. “Terry was very passionate about Hotel Rwanda and wanted to tell a story that, in his opinion, hadn’t been told before,” says Cheadle. “He thought it was a great opportunity to bring to the fore stuff that had been brushed under the carpet, and I really wanted to be a part of that.

“Terry has lived with this piece for years and it’s really affected him deeply,” continues Cheadle. “It’s important to him we tell this story with great care and great attention, and he was always committed to the emotional journey of the characters – and that’s the most important thing to me in the movie. I call Terry ‘the fearless leader.’ He’s also such a brilliant writer – things often had to change in the circumstances we were dealing with, and he and I could sit down, put our heads together, and come up with the necessary changes as well as track the ripple effect they would have and how they would affect what we’d shot and hadn’t shot. It was like putting a living puzzle together, and it was great working with someone who could do that.”

"an amazing journey"

Having read the script about Paul Rusesabagina and his resilience in the face of all obstacles, Cheadle knew it was a role he wanted to play. “Paul kept his faith, his head, and his wits about him and orchestrated the survival of everyone who came to the Hotel Mille Collines. It’s an amazing journey.” 

Published February 24, 2005

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