Thursday, February 17, 2005

Hotel Rwanda: The Opinio Juris Review

I saw Hotel Rwanda the other day with students from my Human Rights class. (Yes, it finally has been released in the Midwest.) If you haven't yet seen it, go. And take your students. Talk about it in class. It is rare when a Hollywood film addresses issues central to international law and human rights; rarer still when it goes to wide release and gets nominated for Academy Awards. My students have only vague memories of the events of the early 1990s, and the film medium is perfectly suited to bringing the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide to life. I will leave the acting and directing reviews to the professionals, but it is worth saying that you barely notice the acting (itself a good sign) in a film which immediately draws you in by the horrors about to unfold.

One thing left me intitially puzzled: the confusing and rather skimpy background on the Arusha peace process, the origins of the RPF and the assassination of President Habyarimana. I left the theater wondering if that would leave most viewers without the appropriate political context. It wasn't until the next day -- this is the kind of film that stays with you for a while -- that I realized the historical fuzziness was likely intentional. Whatever the facts are about who fought whom or who had the most to gain politically or economically from the Arusha Accords, nothing can "explain" genocide. No background is really needed.

What is well developed -- and helped with a haunting score that sounds the drumbeats of death -- is the role of Radio Mille Collines, which used the airwaves as an efficient medium to communicate the commands to kill. The extent to which the radio enabled the Interhamwe to carry out the genocide in a country that did not have the kind of machinery of death of the Nazis was not widely recognized until well after the genocide. The role of the broadcasters as the "command and control" of the genocidaires was revealed in the trials and convictions of three RMC "journalists" before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

I have not read Paul Rusesabagina's autobiographical book on which the film is based, but understand from other sources that certain characters are composites (Nick Nolte as a Canadian Colonel in charge of the understaffed and doomed UN mission is based, loosely, on UNAMIR commander Romeo Dallaire). The extent to which the hotel, owned by the Belgian company Sabena, is spared from the killing because of its connection to powerful elites in the West is a bittersweet commentary on the utter failure of the West to intervene in any meaningful way to prevent or stop the slaughter outside the hotel gates. Rusesabagina is the main character, a decent, hardworking hotel manager who has bought into the product the Europeans and Americans have sold him: seamless customer service, a fine scotch, and a good Cuban cigar are the trappings civilization. He seems to suppress the misdeeds of the Belgian and German colonials (whose creation and exploitation of ethnic differences had left a scarred legacy on the region) And he doesn't realize, until it is too late, that geopolitics matter, and that western indifference to Africa would leave him and his countrymen to fend for themselves. In a poignant scene, Joachin Phoenix's character, a western tv cameraman who gets rare footage of some of the killing, cynically and, it turned out, accurately, predicts to Rusesabagina that outside help would not be coming: "If people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's terrible,' and they'll go on eating their dinners.''

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