Friday, February 25, 2005

One Million Bodybags- Hotel Rwanda

Some movies are difficult to watch because they present something unpleasant to us that we can't stand to see. That happens with a lot of horror movies obviously. Why do we put ourselves through this? We like to live on the edge sometimes and do it especially in a removed way where we can experience these things in a (literally) one-dimensional medium like film.

Another unpleasant thing that we can experience through the movies is tragedy. As we see through reality shows, other peoples' misery can be turned into entertainment fodder. Maybe the thinking is that we like to forget our own problems and then feel better about ourselves by watching other peoples' suffering. Thankfully, the writing on the way is that these kind of shows are on the wan as viewers want to see shows where people getting helped instead of humiliated.

Maybe that explains part of the appeal of one of the most difficult movies to watch that I can remember. Hotel Rwanda documents part of the unimaginable slaughter that happened in that country. With a movie based on real events, part of the strength (or weakness) of the film can play on the audience's knowledge of what they already know about the story. This works very powerfully with the movie as it's evident that this is a story of modern holocaust. In the middle of it is Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, who offers a home for some 1600 war refugees in the hotel that he runs, meekly protected by the U.N. and various local generals. In the meantime, the U.S. and Western Europe shrug their shoulders and let the body count soar: see Clinton Kept Hotel Rwanda Open for more details. In a moving scene, a U.N. diplomat (Nick Nolte) explains to Rusesabagina that he, and by association his people there, are nothing, nobodies that no one outside of Africa cares about. The obvious implication is that they are of no strategic value so why intervene?

And then there's the scene where the European residents of the hotel are led out on buses with the local people left at the hotel. The Europeans sit in the bus and look on with long faces at a group of people who will likely not survive long, unable to do anything. The Rwandans look back at them, almost resigned to what will happen since there is no one to help them anymore.

As moving as Cheadle is (as well as Sophie Okonedo who plays his wife and is also Oscar nominated) and as well-written as the film is, it's hard to keep watching, knowing that horror upon horror will be coming- the final death of the war toll was one million people. It is painful, even knowing that it is a movie and that it's only a recreation. Part of what the movie is trying to do is to remind us what happened, albeit too late. Maybe it's also to remind us what happens when we (the West) ignore such horrors.

In the film, we actually see little blood and murder on the screen. What we see instead is the result of it on peoples' lives- mourning the dead, wondering if they'll be next, wondering if they can survive another day or escape. Most horror movies today liberally splash as much blood and body parts around for shock value, totally ignorant of the fact that what we don't see can be as frightening (if not more) than what we do visably see.

And as good as Cheadle is in portraying a man who tries to keep order in the middle of chaos, he will probably not win an Oscar for his efforts. He deserves it and before anymore might think this is another case of Hollywood racism (see this excellent Alternet article on Black Hollywood), the fact of the matter is that the award will probably go to Jamie Foxx instead. Foxx did indeed do uncanny imitation of Brother Ray but Cheadle's performance was more difficult to pull off- it's much more nuanced and multi-dimensional. Foxx will be rewarded partly because audiences and Oscar voters can feel better about toasting a great American artist than re-opening the wounds of a far away tragedy. That isn't to disparage Foxx or Charles himself (one of my all-time favorite artists) but it's a shame that Cheadle and his movie won't get the props that they deserve and by association, more recognition for the horrible ongoing problem that the movie exposes.

Compare this to other films with a theme of heroism in the middle of a holocaust: Schindler's List (seven Oscars including best picture) and the Killing Fields (three Oscars). Other than Chealde and Okonedo, the film is also nomimted for best screenplay but again, it faces strong competition and may come away with no Oscars. As Nolte's U.N. commander notes, this might be because too many people in the West don't care enough about what happens in Africa but I'm willing to bet that it also has a lot to do with which PR firm and studio can provide the best publicity for their movies.

As for the regional conflict itself, ABC News reports that not only is the militia that caused the Rwanda killings regrouping in the Congo while the U.N. watches powerlessly (saying that they have no mandate to stop them) but the U.N. themselves there have been accused of everything from rape to pedophilia in the area. And still the people there will wonder how much they have to suffer before any helps them. And still, the real life Paul Rusesabagina (now living in Belgium) is understandably not prepared to return to his home in Rwanda.


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