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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Hotel Rwanda holds a mirror up to Society

The other day, I saw a movie which is not in the eye of a storm and most are not even aware of its existence. It will never get a commercial release in India and even if it does – very few will want to watch it.

After all, the Rwanda genocide is so far back in people’s consciousness (if it’s there to begin with). The massacre between the Hutus and Tutsis (meaning ‘Tall Trees’ in Afrikaan and is in deference to their height. While in reality, the dominant tribe – the Hutus actually called them cockroaches.

The movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ is gritty, superbly shot and every one of the actors, including the parts played by the guerilla leaders and other assorted soldiers is acted with a gut wrenching truth. But Don Cheadle steals the show as Paul Rusesabagina a Hutu manager of a Belgian hotel Des Milles Collines, which is frequented by expatriates for the touch of home, by foreign correspondents for a whiff of gossip and a good story over drinks and by the rich members of the local black community, for their delusion of safety.

Paul soon realizes that his hotel may become a refuge and not for just his tribesmen – the Hutus – but even his Tutsi neighbours look to him for protection. He has to play this game of Russian roulette with finesse because his personal stakes are high – his beautiful wife is a Tutsi (played by the beautiful Sophie Okonedo). He stands to lose her and his children in this mindless conflict.

What’s more, when the violence escalates, the people he’s always known and bribed for the hotel, so he could keep his guests happy with a steady supply of beer and scotch and fresh lobster, are the very people who threaten him – subtly and otherwise.

The scotch swilling Hutu colonel now tells Paul that he can’t provide for the security of his ‘guests’ because he knows all the whites have left and the guests are Tutsis who have taken refuge in the hotel.

Another Hutu friend who used to sell Paul the liquor on the black market also knows that he’s hiding ‘cochroaches’ in the hotel. So, he willingly gives him extra sacks of rice free “for the children” but he also tells Paul that things are getting dangerous and on the way back to the hotel, he should take the back route.

As this trip back is being made early in the morning, the heavy mist obscures view to just a few feet in front of the windshield and they feel the road become more bumpy by the minute. Paul tells the driver of the van to stop because he thinks they have gotten off the road. But as he steps out to take a better look, he steps on a body. And there are more bodies everywhere he looks or puts his feet. The van was on the road but on top of bodies, that littered it for miles!

He understands the horrible message and sees what’s in store for him, if he continues to protect the Tutsis in his hotel and ofcourse for the Tutsis themselves.

The UN is a metaphor of impotence in this movie. With Nick Nolte playing the UN commander in Rwanda with no orders to defend or shoot to save lives, he epitomizes the frustration of the soldiers on the ground, who’ve come from other countries to salvage the situation, but are forced to stand by and watch the carnage happening in front of their eyes.

The peacekeeping force may as well have stayed at home. But in a redeeming move, Nick Nolte’s character tells Paul and his guests to call in their markers – call all the influential people they know around the world – to help them get out safely from the hotel.

So, finally some relatives and friends from other countries are able to get some of these people out to Kenya, US, South Africa, Paul’s puts his family on the convoy too but doesn’t get on it himself because his hotel staff – who are mostly Tutsis - have nowhere to go, so he chooses to stay behind for them.

But one of them is a traitorous Hutu, who resents the rich Tutsis fleeing the country and calls up his fellow rebels to tell them about the convoy, which is later ambushed and Nick Nolte is barely able to fight off a murderous mob and get the people back to the safety of the hotel.

Then the electricity and water connections to the hotel is cut and so people cook by using water from the swimming pool. Another attempt is made to send the people to safety and this time Paul gets on the convoy – to do or die with his family beside him.

They make it safely, but not before, he’s shown watching millions of people forced away from their homes, with nowhere to go but lie by the roadside and die. He also loses family members in this insanity – his brother-in-law and his wife are never found but a social worker, who has rescued orphaned children (because there was a concerted Hutu policy to kill the next generation of Tutsis) and brought them to Paul, she is able to rescue his nieces and reunite Paul with them.

This is a true life story and Paul exists. He emigrated to Belgium. If I can’t get the movie out of my mind, I can only imagine, if Paul’s dreams are peaceful.

Again, what happened in Rwanda is a mistake made by the Europeans (Belgians) – the whites – who ruled Rwanda for so long and thought they knew what’s best for the black population. So, they promised to leave the country in the hands of the Tutsis –the minority tribe – but actually left it to the dominant Hutu tribe.

So carnage was bound to be the result. Why did the Europeans and Americans make such a mess of things, that well into the 21st century, these problems still persist? The Belgians in Rwanda, the British in Iraq, the Americans and Russians in Afghanistan. I won’t even bring India into the picture.

The superpowers played their dirty games in other countries and left a trail of blood, that should stain their consciousness forever. If down the ages, till the end of time, people are forever going to associate Germany with Hitler and Nazism, it was Austria’s good fate, that it never became a great power in modern politics and therefore never gave a platform for someone like Adolf Hitler to butcher an entire race, in the name of the its people. Poor Germans – will they ever live this down?

Everyone knows, absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what superpowers should keep in mind, that with absolute power comes absolute responsibility – for all mankind – and somewhere along the line, all the superpowers seem to conveniently forget this.

So, Rwanda is the result. The genocide has supposedly stopped after the Tutsis drove the Hutus away into neighbouring Congo. But how long this ceasefire exists, before it flares up again is anyone’s guess.

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