Accessibility links

Breaking News

Hero Comes Alive on Screen in <i>Hotel Rwanda</i>

True events during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are re-enacted in a powerful drama starring Don Cheadle as a reluctant hero who saves more than 1,000 lives.

"Go inside. Go inside the hotel, all of you. Yes, you can stay here. We will take care of you. Go into the hotel."

As his country was erupting in bloody violence between the Hutus and Tutsis, Rwandan Paul Rusesabagina tried to stay out of the turmoil. The local manager of the European-owned four-star Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, he had strong connections to the west; but his belief that help would come from outside soon evaporated as UN peacekeeping forces did anything but keep the peace.

"No Rwandans. Foreign nationals only. Sorry, father, those were the orders."
"But you can't leave the children behind."
"Sorry father, we have our orders. We can do no more."

Paul, a Hutu married to a Tutsi, had to use all the diplomacy and cleverness with which he ran an elegant hotel to save his family from murderous Hutu extremists.

"Wait, here is a $1,000 U.S. Here, 50,000 francs for my wife and children"
"Take them."

But he found he could not just turn away and leave others to the mercy of the mob.

"I will give you a 100,000 francs for all of them."
"Give me it."
"I don't have it here. At the Mille Collines I can get it for you."
"You'll run into the hotel and hide behind the U.N."
"Sir, I swear: 100,000 francs. I will get you the money."

He created a sanctuary within the gates of the Mille Collines and saved nearly 1,300 people; but looking back on those terrible days, Paul Rusesabagina is still reluctant to wear the label 'hero'. "During the genocide I didn't have time, first of all, to think about all of those things; and I knew I was sentenced to death because militia and soldiers from other corners wanted to kill the refugees. In order to kill them, they first of all had to kill me. That is why I say that I was sentenced to death. So I didn't have the time to think about being a hero. Even if I had, I thought I was doing my duties, my responsibilities, my obligations as a human being - not doing something different," he says.

Don Cheadle portrays Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda and believes, although the film's subject is heavy, it is not meant to depress audiences. "I don't think it is a downer. Ultimately it is uplifting. Ultimately we see good triumph over evil. We see the love that a family has triumphing at the end. Now there are many stories that didn't go that way and many people were lost, but following Paul's particular story is a thriller. Really, you don't know what's going to happen at every turn. You don't know how the events are going to unfold; and as an audience member I think what invests you in the film is that you're watching a man deal with a process and circumstances that are pretty overwhelming and there is no guarantee that he's going to make it," he says.

"There will be no rescue. No intervention force. We can only save ourselves. Many of you know influential people abroad. You must call these people. You must tell them what will happen to us. You must shame them into sending help.?"

Co-writer and director Terry George says he understood that Hotel Rwanda, first and foremost, had to be entertaining enough to grip the audience; but the Ulster-born filmmaker also believes it carries a powerful moral message, especially to viewers in countries that chose, for whatever reason, to 'look the other way' as a million people were slaughtered. "I do want all of us to feel collective shame: not so much specifically about Rwanda, but about the attitude to the African continent - that life in Africa is not on an equal par with western life or almost anywhere else, that it's acceptable that thousands die there, or it's regrettable, but no action is required. I think that's a moral failing of ours that has to be examined," he says.

Paul Rusesabagina, who now lives in Europe, believes retelling the story is important, but not to point fingers of blame. We cannot forget, but we have to forgive and go ahead in life and think about the future. What took place - the genocide in Rwanda - is now taking place in Sudan. It is taking place in the Congo. People have got to be told. The main objective of this movie is just to convey a message to each and everyone so that we can - all of us - become sensitive to these issues and try to avoid a disaster like what took place in Rwanda. It shouldn't take place anywhere else in the world. Our movie is a kind of wakeup call," he says.

"How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?"
"I think if people see this footage they will say 'Oh my God, that's horrible' and then go on eating their dinners."

Hotel Rwanda was filmed in South Africa, with many real-life survivors of the Rwandan genocide as key supporting players. South African actress Sophie Okonedo co-stars as Paul's Tutsi wife; and there are cameos by Joaquin Phoenix as a western journalist and Nick Nolte plays a Canadian military officer who knows the orders not to intervene are wrong.