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History in the Filmmaking

Stewart Oksenhorn
Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo star in director Terry Georges Hotel Rwanda, showing Monday at 8:30 p.m. at Harris Hall as part of Aspen Filmfests Academy Screenings series.
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For better or worse, says director and screenwriter Terry George, people form their understanding of historical events through feature films. If the public has a sense of the brutality of Pol Pot’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Cambodia at all, it is largely through the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.” The havoc wrought by Nazi Germany continues to come into focus a half-century later with films like “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.””Feature films are one of the best ways to show complex events to a modern audience,” said George. “I can take them inside a catastrophic event in a way the documentary cannot. It’s a noble way of explaining situations. Movies will become the historical record, explaining events to the world.”In the past, George has laid out for audiences the religious and ethnic troubles in his native Northern Ireland. George, a Belfast native, wrote the screenplays for “In the Name of the Father” and “The Boxer,” two-thirds of director Jim Sheridan’s acclaimed Irish trilogy.More recently, George has turned his eye to a place needing attention: Africa. George was working on a fictional script that would expose how the world has turned its back on the continent when his agent sent him a script in progress by Keir Pearson. Pearson’s story centered around Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a luxury hotel in Tigali, Rwanda, who sheltered Tutsi refugees from the Hutu militia in the hotel.

“When I read it, the story had all the elements I was looking for to make a statement about Africa,” said George from his home in Sag Harbor, on New York’s Long Island. George contacted Rusesabagina and invited him to Long Island. “We talked for five days, just talked. I got a feel for all the elements that would go into a film: his relationship with his wife, his life before the genocide.”Judging from the early reaction to “Hotel Rwanda” – the story of Rusesabagina that George wrote, with Pearson, and directed – a good portion of the public is about to be exposed to the Rwandan tragedy of the mid-1990s. “Hotel Rwanda” is making numerous critics’ best-of-the-year lists, including that of the National Board of Review. The film is also nominated for a best drama Golden Globe. And even more praise has been lavished on Don Cheadle, whose spellbinding portrayal of Rusesabagina has earned him his own Golden Globe nomination and plenty of Oscar chatter.In “Hotel Rwanda,” there is no mistaking that Rwanda was a killing field on a mass scale. In one particularly disturbing scene, a truck filled with supplies for the approximately 1,000 refugees sheltered at the Hotel Milles Colinnes is nearly stopped in its tracks. Paul blames the driver, until they discover the real problem: hundreds of dead bodies piled up in the middle of the road. There is no shortage of bloodshed and gruesome scenes in George’s telling of the story. And just as brutal as the violence are the scenes when the U.N. peacekeeping forces – led by Colonel Oliver, played by Nick Nolte – informs the Rwandans that the world community is pulling out, leaving the Rwandans to continue the massacre.Yet, amidst the factual record of perhaps a million Rwandans killed over an incomprehensibly short period of a few months, George focuses on the uplifting story of Rusesabagina and his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo).

“What really attracted me to the story, along with the humanitarian side, was the element of romance,” said George. “When Paul spoke to me, he told me his life was founded on his deep love of Tatiana, and this bond they built together. I realized you could base a film on political events, but also on a romance.”So while George acknowledges that films like “Hotel Rwanda” can shape public opinion, he also recognizes his primary job is as a storyteller. Had George focused solely on the killing – by both major ethnic groups, Tutsis and Hutus – the chances of making any film at all would have been low, and the likelihood of attracting a reasonably broad audience even lower. To George, it was not only far more effective to find the positive story within the horror, but also more satisfying as a filmmaker.”I didn’t start out to tell the enormity of the story of the Rwanda genocide. I set out to tell Paul’s story,” he said. “I don’t think feature film is capable of telling the story of the genocide. So I didn’t feel I neglected that story.”Given that we avoided the subject matter when it happened, it didn’t seem I could get people into the theater unless I gave them something uplifting, and someone to cheer for. My job as a filmmaker is to entertain an audience. And not in the modern sense of entertainment, as amusement or ‘oh, wow!’ special effects. But I think back to the films of my childhood, like ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ – the emotions tapped into were anger and sadness and, ultimately, hope.”Simply getting the hopeful, accessible story of Paul Rusesabagina onto the screen was hardly a snap. In fact, it eerily paralleled the way the world ignored the actual genocide.



“It was a struggle,” said George, who gives credit to producer Alex Ho for raising the money to make “Hotel Rwanda” independently. “I didn’t feel we would ever pull the money together. The answer from Hollywood every time was, ‘Great script. But we’ll have to pass on it.'”It was almost like it was getting passed on to someone else, getting dumped in the bin.”Now that the film has been made, George is setting out to prove his point about feature films shaping public opinion. And perhaps even influencing public action. George has held special screenings for influential corners of the world community; he has twice shown the film at the United Nations General Assembly.And the film couldn’t be more timely, with the ethnic killings in the Darfur region of the Sudan stirring debate over how the world should respond. It was such lack of decisive action that caused George to consider making a film about Africa in the first place.

“I felt the film industry actively avoided a whole continent where the most catastrophic, crazy, brutal wars were happening,” he said. “I wanted to show people in Peoria, or Palm Beach, that these people are just like us. These are decent, ordinary people trying to get by in life. And they need our support.””Hotel Rwanda” will show on Monday, Dec. 27, at 8:30 p.m. at Harris Hall as part of Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings series. For information on the full series, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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