The Continuing Legacy Hotel Rwanda

For many people, Hotel Rwanda (2004) is the only way they were first made aware of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The film follows Paul Rusesabagina, house manager of the Hôtel des Milles Collines in Kigali as the Rwandan Genocide took place. The hotel took in thousands of Hutu and Tutsi refugees and provided a safe haven as the violence unfolded, and remained as such even as the international community turned a blind eye and refused to intervene. Despite the events in Rwanda of the late 1990s being a significant genocide, with upwards of 1 million people killed in just about 100 days, and despite the fact that these events were relatively recent, education of the event is still lacking. I know that for me, this film was my first significant exposure to the genocide, and indeed to the Republic of Rwanda in the first place. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that had there not been the genocide, and had it not been for Hotel Rwanda, there is a fairly good chance that I would have never even know about the nation at all. In fact, in my mind the name “Rwanda” will always be associated with “genocide,” and somehow in a way that is different than the association with “Germany” and “Holocaust.” Yep, I’m an American asshole. But I suspect that this way of thinking is not unique to myself, and that this understanding of Rwanda is held by many other people.

Of course, this mode of thinking is incredibly problematic. Reducing an entire nation and its people to a single event–and more specifically, a single event as portrayed by a single film–is dehumanizing and reinforces the distance between “the West” and of Africa that has existed for decades and decades.

This is especially troubling because of the type of film that Hotel Rwanda is. Though its promotional materials position it as a fully true depiction of real events, it remains a dramatized account and not a 100% accurate representation. It is not a documentary, and at best could be called a “documentary” (the quotation marks being significant). This is a common problem with all human rights cinema; defining and determining any one specific genre is an impossible task.

In many other situations, it wouldn’t really be an issue if the film’s depiction wasn’t wholly accurate. Even within the area of human rights films, it isn’t unheard of for a filmmaker to take creative liberties in order to enhance the emotional appeal. But the problem with Hotel Rwanda is that it is the film that brought the Rwandan genocide into the hearts and minds of international audiences. So when it overlooks important historical contexts or makes problematic representations, it has a significantly larger impact than the confines of the film text itself.

For instance, Hotel Rwanda positions the Rwandan Genocide as a simple “good guys vs. bad guys” conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis, and completely overlooks the history of colonialism that initially contributed to the tensions between the two groups. I’m not suggesting that Belgium’s colonization of Rwanda, and favoring of the Tutsis over the Hutus, was the only cause of the violence. However, the fact that the film does not gesture to this colonial history frames the genocide as a problem that exists solely within the nation’s borders, and absolves the European colonists of any and all responsibility.

This issue becomes even more problematic when the film positions Belgium, and indeed the international community, in an overwhelmingly positive light. Throughout the film, it is the Belgian owner of the Hôtel des Milles Collines that has to send a letter to the hotel staff to keep them working. It is the same Belgian owner who leverages his connections with the French government to stave off one attack by the Hutu militia. Rather than being the originator of the colonial history and instigator of violence, Belgium gets to be the savior. This white savior narrative is further reinforced by Colonel Oliver of the United Nations, who regularly appears and “saves the day” for the Rwandans who are shown as unable to help themselves.

This is a conundrum that I’ve been going back and forth on for the last several days. Of course, many of the representations and depictions of people within Hotel Rwanda are problematic. But is it possible that problematic representation is better than no representation at all? Is it better to have a flawed understanding of Rwanda rather than no understanding at all? How do these same problems apply to all human rights films? To all cinema more generally?

I’m not entirely sure what the correct answer to these questions are, but they are certainly things that will remain in mind throughout much of the future work that I do.

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