‘Hotel Rwanda’ relays an important message

Stewart Oksenhorn
Don Cheadle stars, along with Sophie Okonedo, in "Hotel Rwanda," showing tonight at Harris Hall as part of Aspen Filmfest's Academy Screening series.

It is fairly amazing that “Hotel Rwanda” got made in the first place. The film examines a recent event – the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that had the ethnic Hutus and Tutsis massacring one another in horrific numbers – that the world, in effect, turned its back on. Some years after the killings, the film community appeared ready to repeat history in a way by red-lighting a movie that would have put the tragedy under the spotlight.”It was a struggle,” said director Terry George of the effort to get financing for “Hotel Rwanda,” made from a script he co-wrote with Keir Pearson. “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,” continued George, noting how Hollywood’s collective thumbs-down recalled the United Nations’ pullout from Rwanda, a decision captured in heartbreaking fashion in the film.

Eventually, producer Alex Holt raised the money to make “Hotel Rwanda” from independent sources, including the South African film commission.”Hotel Rwanda” has now become practically unignorable. George has screened his film for significant players on the world stage, including two showings for the U.N. General Assembly. The film is generating considerable Academy Award buzz, and has earned a Golden Globe nomination for best drama. It landed on the National Board of Review’s list of top 10 films of 2004.”Hotel Rwanda” shows today at 8:30 p.m. at Harris Hall in Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings series. Also showing today, at 5:30 p.m., is the Chinese film “The House of Flying Daggers.”Apart from the searing emotions provoked, the biggest reason “Hotel Rwanda” has become so visible is the performance of Don Cheadle. Cheadle stars as Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life manager of a luxury hotel in Tigali, Rwanda, whose indifference to politics is transformed by the mass killings. The work is stunning: No matter how closely one parses Cheadle’s performance, the acting is never apparent as Cheadle embodies Rusesabagina so completely. Cheadle is nominated for a best actor Golden Globe, and is a likely candidate for an Oscar nomination.

“From the point when we started writing the script, we thought of Don Cheadle,” said George, a Belfast native and resident of Sag Harbor, Long Island, N.Y., who has examined the ethnic and religious troubles in his native Northern Ireland in two previous scripts, “In the Name of the Father” and “The Boxer,” both directed by Jim Sheridan. “He has the ability to disappear inside a character. For this film, you don’t see Don Cheadle. You look at clips of ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ or ‘Bulworth,’ and it’s the same thing. That chameleon ability meant I could create characters who could go up on the screen without the charisma of the actor coming through.”As significant as the erasing of the actor’s personality is the breadth of Cheadle’s portrayal of Rusesabagina. While the action focuses on Rusesabagina’s sheltering of more than a thousand Tutsi refugees from the murderous Hutu militia, the film encompasses the romance he has for his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and his transformation from a businessman indifferent to political strife to a community hero. Cheadle’s performance captures all the inherent tensions: between self-interest and social demands, practicality and idealism.(Cheadle is likewise impressive as an auto-repair shop worker in another film showing in the Academy Screenings series, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” showing Thursday, Dec. 30.)

George practically dismisses talk of awards as a distraction from bigger concerns. “Hotel Rwanda,” he hopes, will generate necessary discussion about the world’s involvement in the affairs of Africa, including the current ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of Sudan. George aims to use “Hotel Rwanda” as a tool to right the wrongs done, especially by Europe, in Africa.”These are decent, ordinary people trying to get by in life,” said George of the characters in “Hotel Rwanda” and Africans generally. “And they need our support. The wealth of Europe is based on the systematic looting of the African continent. The political mess [in Rwanda] was created by the Europeans. There was no animosity between Tutsis and Hutus until the Belgians decided they needed to make an elite minority to run the country.””Hotel Rwanda” shows today at 8:30 p.m. at Harris Hall. Also showing today, at 5:30 p.m., is “The House of Flying Daggers.” Academy Screenings continue with multiple daily features through Saturday, Jan. 1. For a complete schedule, go to Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is