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Two men sit in a hotel room in Washington, here to publicize Hotel Rwanda. One of them is passionate about the events that inspired the film, which is set during the 1994 ethnic paroxysm in which more than 800,000 Rwandans were butchered. The other is clinical, evaluating the movie more as a piece of storytelling than as a personal document.
The passionate man is Terry George, the film’s co-writer and director. His clinical cohort is Paul Rusesabagina, who not merely survived the slaughter but saved also some 1,200 people from it. With bribes and bluster, he kept members of the majority Hutu tribe from massacring the residents of Kigali’s upscale Hotel des Milles Collines, which had become a refuge to Tutsis, Rwanda’s principal minority group, as well as moderate Hutus like himself.
Rusesabagina is the central character in Hotel Rwanda, in which he’s played by Don Cheadle. Natty in a pink jacket and black slacks, the 50-year-old former Milles Collines manager now lives in Brussels and runs a Zambian trucking company, yet he proclaims that “wherever I go, I always go as a hotelier. My eye is the eye of a supervisor. From near or far, it is always like that.”
George is two years older than his subject, but, in his blue jeans and black jacket, he looks as if he’s from a different world, if not a different generation.
“The great thing about Paul is, you sit here for a few minutes and get the character,” says George. “You know—that detachment. It’s what kept him going. When I met him first off, I got it. Along with the style thing. He studied at hotel school in Switzerland. Now, traveling around these hotels in America, I’m getting a running rating. This is like the best so far. But then, it’s the Ritz-Carlton in D.C., you know.”
George’s own life is less notable for time spent in luxury accommodations than in Her Majesty’s prisons. Although he now lives for much of the year in New York, the writer-director was raised in Belfast, where he was involved in the struggle between Northern Ireland’s republicans and loyalists. That theme is reflected in several films that George helped script, including In the Name of Father and The Boxer, and one he also directed, Some Mother’s Son. So it’s to be expected that the filmmaker applied lessons learned from his hometown to his latest.
“I felt I had an understanding of how politicians and manipulators and people who want to accentuate sectarian and racial divisions go about that,” says the director, who was twice incarcerated for anti-British activities. “They feed on the fears of ordinary people—that they’re going to be robbed of their livelihood or their culture or their lives, even, by their neighbors. I’d experienced and understood and could see the key elements of that in Rwanda.”
George didn’t find Rusesabagina’s story on his own, however. An early version of the Hotel Rwanda script, written by American Keir Pearson, was sent to the filmmaker by his agent. George had been looking, he says, “to write something about ordinary Africans in conflict,” and “this encompassed everything I wanted to say.
“I felt like I’d won the lottery when I read Paul’s story,” he continues, “because it was anchored in a great romance and a solid family story and had all the elements of a thriller. And yet it allowed me to tell this complex political story that had impact around the world. And to focus on an African hero. Unless it’s Nelson Mandela or Steve Biko, it’s very rare to get that opportunity.”
The director met with Pearson, who became his co-writer, and then went to Brussels to introduce himself to their script’s real-life protagonist. “Terry showed me his movies, and I said, ‘He’s the right person to do it.’ We trusted each other,” recalls Rusesabagina, who met extensively with George, spent time with Cheadle, visited the shoot in Johannesburg, and went to London for postproduction.
“It’s a partnership,” George notes. “I needed Paul to be totally committed to it and involved in it. And Don, [actress] Sophie [Okonedo, who plays Rusesabagina’s Tutsi wife, Tatiana Rusesabagina], Keir, Alex, all of us.”
Alex is the film’s co-producer, A. Kitman Ho, who helped assemble a financing deal that included South African, Italian, British, and U.S. backers. “It’s what I call a three-strike movie,” George jokes. “It had an all-black cast, it was about Africa and Africans, and it was about genocide. Everybody said they loved the script, but it wasn’t for them. Classic diplomatic answer.”
Some studios might have been interested with an above-the-title star such as Denzel Washington or Will Smith in the central role. But when George wrote the script, he says, “I visualized Don Cheadle in the role, and I met him first. I also told him, ‘Look, my first obligation is get this story made, and if someone wants to make it with someone else, I’m going to have to go with him.’ But having financed it ourselves independently, I was able to go back and cast Don, and that for me was a joy.”
Cheadle’s inspiration also approves of the casting decision. “It is amazing to see the way Don does it,” Rusesabagina says. “For instance, when I see him running up and down going to see his wife, calling ‘Tatiana! Tatiana!’ He did it very well. To me, it’s just kind of a surprise, because I never expected myself to be on the Hollywood screen one day.”
Early in 2003, Rusesabagina made his first return trip to Rwanda, accompanied by George. The hotelier was pleased to see that the Milles Collines is “as beautiful as it used to be.” His traveling companion, by contrast, was more impressed by a genocide shrine they visited, which he calls “the holiest place I’ve ever been.”
The site is a former technical college where the local mayor, a Hutu, invited Tutsis to gather for protection. Some 40,000 people came, George explains, “and then, over the course of four days, they were slaughtered by the militia and the Hutu army and dumped into pits. They sprinkled lime or chemicals to destroy the bodies. Somehow, and I don’t know how this happened, rather than destroy the bodies, they’ve been mummified. They’ve taken some of those bodies and placed them in the rooms where they were killed.
“And the most bizarre thing, and quite moving, is that in death their skin has turned white,” the director adds. “So the very color of skin that would have saved their lives they have become in death. It’s the closest, I feel, you could ever get to the genocide. Because the children, women, men are in the last moments of their life. Some of them have their hands up, some of them [seem to ] have [had] their hands up …[but] their arms [were] chopped off. You can see the slashes through their skull where the machete struck.
“On the way out, a woman came up to me and said, ‘There’s a condolence book here.’ And I just had no idea what to say. The next thing, I was writing, and I saw I wrote, ‘I promise to tell this story.’ I knew then, whether I shot it on [digital video] with local extras with money from credit cards and mortgages, or did it the way we eventually did it, I was going to get it made.”
The shrine, however, did not inspire George to make a film that lingers on corpses or machete wounds. The director bristles at a few early reviews that have suggested that Hotel Rwanda wrongly underplays the brutality. “How can you possibly show people being chopped to bits?” he asks. “How can you show the reality of that? To try to show that in a feature film is to actually make phoniness out of it, to turn it into a horror film.
“For me, to best way to tell a political story is through an ordinary human story, where some person…walks [the audience] through these incredible events, whether it be the British justice system or the Irish hunger strike or, in this case, the Rwandan genocide.”
That’s why the filmmaker decided to focus instead on Paul and Tatiana’s relationship, which he calls “the anchor of the whole film. It’s one good man and his family and his belief in them that allows him to find a moral center. It’s basically a family story. It goes from the nuclear family to this huge extended family, where he’s holding them together with the support of his wife.”
As for the man who lived through the horror, Rusesabagina says with no visible emotion that reliving Rwanda’s meltdown was initially traumatic—“but as you get used to it, it’s OK.
“I think it’s always better to talk about such things than to keep them within, because one day you might bust. But once you talk about it, at least you feel a bit relieved.” —Mark Jenkins