Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Hotel Rwanda (2004) >>

Violence is Needed to Properly Portray Genocide

By Hilary Chadwick

[1] Hotel Rwanda has introduced the issues of genocide and humanitarian intervention to millions of audiences around the world. However, the film's evasion of violence and glorification of historical events has created a production that portrays an overly optimistic vision of the Rwandan genocide that does little more than stimulate awareness and discussion. On the other hand, other feature films delve deeper into these issues by accurately representing massacres with frequent violence and desperation. For instance, Roland Joffé's 1984 The Killing Fields, a film about a Western journalist covering massacres in Cambodia during the early 1970's, achieves this goal by linking explicit and frequent use of violence with the primary plot of friendship. As a result, the effects of US intervention in Vietnam and the scale of violence in Cambodia is clearly communicated. These more accurate portrayals, I argue, have a greater chance at stimulating serious thought and perhaps action about genocide and humanitarian intervention. Though inspirational, Hotel Rwanda falls short of its potential to stimulate audiences to deeply consider the UN involvement in the Rwandan genocide. When genocide is the subject of film, violence must be included to portray a more accurate reality that stimulates serious consideration.

[2] Hotel Rwanda introduces the lack of Western humanitarian intervention in the Rwandan genocide, yet its main focus is on Paul Rusesabagina's heroic story. To create such an uplifting film in the context of the horrifying massacres and irresponsible role of the West in the genocide, filmmaker Terry George glorified the historical events and avoided violence and disgusting reality to preserve the dignity of this hero -- a move that undeniably attracted audiences to the box office. While Hotel Rwanda introduced me to genocide and created some motivation to create change, it generated a more overwhelming effect of awe for Rusesabagina. As the film concluded, I was congratulating Rusesabagina, not thinking more broadly about a nation in desperation or about the US role in the genocide. The Killing Fields, however, with its harsher and more truthful portrayal of history, fostered within me a greater motivation to change US policy on international intervention. While the entertaining and uplifting portrayal of Rusesabagina did provoke me to become educated about genocide, it did not generate the powerful feelings of guilt and responsibility that these feelings are necessary to motivate concerted action toward achieving the humanitarian intervention necessary to combat this evil.

[3] Hotel Rwanda's director Terry George deliberately glorified the historic facts of the Rwandan genocide and avoided violence to present a dignified story of Paul Rusesabagina. As writer Keir Pearson points out, "We [George and Pearson] both agreed that the purpose of the film was to reach a wide audience, an audience that probably knew nothing about the Rwandan genocide, and make them aware" (George 21). Thus, the goal of the film was to provide a brief overview of the genocide that was simple enough for audiences to grasp. The means the filmmakers used to explore the Rwandan genocide was the personal account of one individual, Rusesabagina, who, having saved 1,268 lives in the genocide, was an exception to the rule, for the real story of Rwanda is death not life.

[4] Though the greater focus is on Rusesabagina's story, Hotel Rwanda does have two brief scenes that acknowledge the lack of international humanitarian intervention, yet they do not illustrate the resulting violence of this decision. First, George describes Western intervention in Rwanda as a mission seeking to provide refuge only to the white foreign nationals and not the Rwandans. This distinction is made clearly through a shot that shows a series of white faces comfortably protected from harm inside a large bus while the Rwandans are literally left out in the rain in front of the Hotel Milles des Collines (0:54:30). Just prior to this shot, UN peacekeepers are shown physically separating white aid workers from black Rwandan victims, and the workers are told they must not take their charges with them. Don Cheadle, playing Rusesabagina, acknowledges this abandonment by the West and calmly tells the Rwandans to return to the hotel. He is their new savior. This striking image visually recognizes the deliberate separation and prioritization of these white individuals from the native Rwandans.

[5] What George and Pearson choose not to include are images of the dead bodies that were a result of this abandonment of support. They do not show the massacres that were occurring in a church just outside the fences of the Hotel Milles Collines (Rusesabagina). Instead, they end the scene with the Rwandans protected by Rusesabagina and the hotel foyer. The filmmakers do not include the details of the vast majority of the Rwandans who were not protected by the haven of the hotel, because they faced a much more tragic fate. Their bodies would not have provided an extra character to the story line, because they would have been killed off so quickly. However, in the greater context of the Rwandan genocide, these bodies are a necessary part of the history left out of George and Pearson's creation. This choice to avoid the violence occurring not even a mile from the hotel but ominously present in the context of Paul Rusesabagina, reflects a very limited, arguably insufficient portrayal of the events and history being made at the hotel.

[6] An earlier scene in Hotel Rwanda introduces a UN Peacekeeper's shame of the Western nations' abandonment of the Rwandanese yet again avoids violence to drive the point home. This scene portrays Colonel Oliver, the symbolic Romeo Dellaire, leader of the UN Peacekeeping force in Rwanda, after he spoke with the peacekeeping mission at the UN in New York (0:49:22). Oliver storms into the hotel bar, asks for a drink, and is congratulated by Rusesabagina. But Oliver insists that he should not be congratulated; instead, "You should spit on my face" because "The West. All the superpowers. Everything you believe in, Paul. They think you're…worthless...You're black! You're not even a nigger…. You're an African. They're not gonna stay, Paul. They're not gonna stop the slaughter."

[7] Colonel Oliver is shown here outing the West that he previously was proud to represent. He does show a livid expression, even a fierce intonation, yet the conversation ends at the bar. The audience is introduced to this shame yet only sees it on the ephemeral upset expression of Colonel Oliver. And this guilt is not even sustained through the end of the film. At Colonel Oliver's last meeting with Rusesabagina, he is positive, supportive, and not overwhelmed with guilt. In this scene Rusesabagina arrives at a UN camp created by the directors, yet, nonetheless, there is a peaceful exchange between him and Oliver. Colonel Oliver wishes Rusesabagina well and departs from the scene. There is no remaining guilt expressed on his face, for he is proud to be ushering Rusesabagina to safety. This scene does not leave the audience with a bad taste in its mouth about the reality of the irresponsible role of the UN in the Rwanda genocide; instead, it communicates a mutually peaceful relationship between Rusesabagina and Oliver.

[8] In reality, however, Rusesabagina was horrified at the lack of UN support in the genocide. In these two brief introductions to the lack of UN intervention with humanitarian aid, Hotel Rwanda deliberately constructs an overly optimistic and fictitious representation of the efficacy of the UN troops that does not align with the reality Rusesabagina describes in his autobiography. In the concluding scene, for example, Rusesabagina and his family are escorted by a UN convoy to a well kept and fully stocked relief camp in which organized UN workers provide food, direction, and transportation to the Rwandans (1:50:33). This depiction creates an oasis for Rusesabagina after the devastation witnessed throughout the film. However, as told in the real Rusesabagina's autobiography, this scene was far from the actual reality. Rusesabagina and his family instead were delivered by the Rawandan Patriotic Front to "a kind of refugee holding area. But it was no camp in the conventional sense. It was a looting zone"; and there were no UN troops to be found (167).

[9] The film, however, focuses on the reunion between Rusesabagina and his nieces, who are found in healthy condition. The filmmakers do not focus on what Rusesabagina describes in his autobiography as "weeping [that] filled the air…[as] Wives came to understand that they would never see their missing husbands again" (167). George and Pearson did not include the lost lives, the bodies of the deceased husbands, or the weeping and devastation from the violence. In his autobiography, Rusesabagina touches on the strength needed to compose himself during this time: "It took a tremendous force of will to keep your own heart together in this unending grief" (167). This reaction was a part of the real life story of Paul Rusesabagina, yet still, despite its relevance to the main character of the film, George and Pearson decided not to include this emotional response in Hotel Rwanda. If this reality were represented in the film, Rusesabagina would seem to still be in dire conditions with no reward for his efforts. The filmmakers, however, decided to play god and create a more glorious conclusion to the film to reward Rusesabagina for his heroic efforts. This depiction encouraged many audiences to believe that one individual can weather the storm of genocide. While inspiring, this conclusion leaves the harsher reality of the genocide left untold. Audiences are left congratulating Rusesabagina instead of furiously writing letters to their representatives to demand greater accountability and mobility of their nations in this international catastrophe. If the filmmakers had shown the reality, perhaps the film would have delivered a more dramatic and devastating punch that would have lingered longer in audience consciousness. Perhaps by seeing this unending grief, the audience would have been more moved and educated, as opposed to inspired.

[10] On the other hand, as I said before, The Killing Fields illustrates a much more powerful portrayal of history that more fully lives up to the potential of a feature film about genocide. To reach this goal, The Killing Fields illustrates a plethora of violence to provide immediacy to the historic events. It is apparent that this film's goal is to not only illustrate an optimistic story of one individual, as Hotel Rwanda does, but to create a more violent and real depiction of history with the power to educate its viewers at once.

[11] From the very first scene, The Killing Fields utilizes violence to explain the immediacy and severity of the massacres in Cambodia. Sydney Schanberg, a foreign correspondent from the New York Times, is sent to Cambodia to cover the war in Vietnam and the violence that as a result of US intervention there spilled over and affected the lives of thousands of Cambodian civilians. Schanberg is sitting at a table in a highly populated town in Cambodia when an explosion throws him from his chair. The cameraman accompanying him immediately begins shooting the fresh carnage. The camera doesn't hesitate to capture, with proximity, the bloody bodies of this explosion. This scene immediately sets the tone for the rest of the film and establishes a mood of intensity and severity that hooked my attention.

[12] In addition to this first scene, the film has a reoccurring motif of a portrait of naked crying children. This image is frequently presented after the exposure of violence, as described in the scene above, or even larger scale violence; the camera finds a sole child, usually with little clothing, crying uncontrollably with no solace or support. The child represents a helplessness and desperation that is carried throughout the film. This representation strives to produce reality and is a deliberate enhancement, yet it shows severity, intensity, and desperation, as opposed to optimism, romance, and conclusions as done in the love story between Paul and his wife Tatiana Rusesabagina, or the harmonious relationship between Colonel Oliver and Paul Rusesabagina, or the falsely glorified UN camp at the concluding scene in Hotel Rwanda. Joffé uses this motif of the single crying child to intensify the violence depicted in Cambodia and suggest the audience's reaction as either crying with the child or doing something to take pity and provide support to this child.

[13] A final scene from The Killing Fields drives home the disgusting severity of the massacres in Cambodia and illustrates the sense of reality and desperation that made my body shake with fear. Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist, guide to Schanberg, is separated from the New York Times staff when he cannot pass for a British citizen at the French embassy in Cambodia. But, instead of discarding this character and ending Dith Pran's story when he leaves the main character Schanberg's side, Joffé follows the progression of his story as an illustration of the stark contrast to the comfort that Schanberg enjoys after returning home in the US. Joffé depicts Dith Pran's story with violence, torture, and desperation. In one scene, Dith Pran is tied to a tree with his arms seized behind him. He tries repeatedly to stand, yet he struggles because his weak muscles, atrophied in the concentration camp, can barely support him. Then Joffé shows the alternative reality of Schanberg, comfortably seated in his cubicle in the New York office. Another vivid image of Dith Pran lingers in my mind when he is escaping from the concentration camp and sinks into the murky waters that he realizes are filled with corpses and bones. A sense of utter fear and disgust reverberated in me with the image of these skulls floating above the water. Again, the directors did not shy away from this depiction, yet they purposefully included this to illustrate the reality of the horrors in Cambodia.

[14] Thus, the comparison of The Killing Fields with Hotel Rwanda serves as an example of the different approaches of each production staff. The Killing Fields portrays a violent, desperate depiction of Cambodia that not only supplemented the story line of the partnership and resulting friendship between Westerner Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian Dith Pran but also illustrated the harsh reality of the massacres in Cambodia. The stark reality of this film created disgust in me. On the other hand, the romanticized version of Paul Rusesabagina's story in Hotel Rwanda generated a much different response. The brief introductions to the lack of UN intervention in Rwanda and the rosy conclusion to the film left me inspired by a triumphant personal story and impressed by the strength and character of Paul Rusesabagina. However, although it is impossible to compare genocide and violence on an even scale, I did not feel the same sense of desperation for the Rwandans as I did for the Cambodian citizens. After viewing The Killing Fields I left thinking that the US was the sole responsible party in the massacres in Cambodia. In comparison, after viewing Hotel Rwanda, I did not dwell on the lack of UN intervention in the Rwandan genocide. Yet, I learned about this through other documentary films (such as Ghosts of Rowanda and Triumph of Evil) in which I saw the violence occurring.

[15] In summary, both The Killing Fields and Hotel Rwanda are excellent films. They both capture historic events and introduce this history to a wide range of audiences around the world. However, The Killing Fields more effectively seized the opportunity and potential of feature films to illustrate the severity, intensity, and reality of the massacres by using sufficient violence and images of desperation to invoke a sense of intensity about the war in Cambodia. While, on the other hand, Hotel Rwanda introduced the genocide, gave a limited perspective on the history, and left me largely inspired by this one man's efforts as opposed to grieving about the greater severity of the Rwandan genocide.

[16] In the wake of the recent genocide in Darfur, it is apparent that the international community is still not prepared to face genocide or to prevent these atrocities from happening. In this context, it is crucial that the feature film industry takes advantage of the opportunity to educate large audiences as much as possible about issues such as genocide. I do believe feature film plays a wonderful role at providing humorous, inspiring, loving portrayals of history to audiences all over the world, yet when the topic of genocide is the focus, it is imperative that history is communicated with reality and efficiency in order to educate that audience held captive in the theater about this subject. Thus, to contribute to a stronger and more powerful canon of films about genocide, violence must be included to properly portray the events to the audience and motivate a response that is appropriately severe for the reality.