The excellent and lovable Don Cheadle as Paul.
Like Liam Neeson's Oskar Schindler, Paul (Don Cheadle) is introduced to us as a succesful and charming manager of Kigali's luxury hotel, the Sabena Hôtel des Mille Collines. He's the sort of man who doesn't want to stick his neck out in political matters. Instead, earnest and diplomatic, he easily trades bottles of brand-name liquor for personal favors with the visiting diplomats and military leaders. While the (some would call them artificial and colonial remnants) ethnic tensions between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi groups come to a boil, Paul assures his friends and family that there's nothing to be worried about. "The UN is here!" he says optimistically. "The whole world is watching!"
This is just painful to hear, as the UN's failure in Rwanda has since become infamous. Indeed, when Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana is assassinated, the situation suddenly deteriorates into open civil war. Paul is inadvertently thrust into a significant moral position when his neighbors flee to his house for help. He takes them to the hotel for safety and, day by day, the group under his care grows to over a thousand people. Paul must then use his depleting resources for bribes and depleting diplomatic charm to ensure their survival.
The film is a very straightforward narrative, told simply and clearly. We think its greatest value is that it educates the typical American viewer in the 1994 genocide - much of the dialogue is either straight exposition ("I'm Hutu, but you are Tutsi," Paul tells his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), apropos of nothing) or political/historical commentary in a nutshell. For example, two important issues - the UN's inability to act and the suspected racism which stymied international intervention - are bluntly vocalized by various characters.
An iconic scene, which reminded us of the similar "evacuation of white expats in times of local crisis" scene from The Killing Fields.
Nick Nolte as the token powerless UN official - complete with no Belgian accent, whatsoever!
Interestingly, the racism theory - that is, that Western governments reacted more swiftly to the war in Bosnia because it was a "white" war - is always put forward by white characters. First, the cynical news reporter (Joaquin Phoenix) quickly dispels Paul's hopes for international intervention:
PAUL: How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?
REPORTER: I think if people see this footage they'll say, "oh my God that's horrible," and then go on eating their dinners.
Later, the exasperated UN colonel (Nick Nolte) continues along the same vein: "You're black. You're not even a n****. You're an African." And finally, Paul's Belgian boss (Jean Reno) calls the Western governments "cowards" who don't care about what happens in Rwanda. We think it's notable that only white characters vocalize this opinion, because we think it's a cunning way to shame and sympathize the predominantly white American audience which would watch this film. That is, call us horribly cynical, but we think had the black African characters said these things, a white American viewer might have remained skeptical and perhaps even dismissed them as just theories or oversensitivity. Instead, since it is always a white character which acknowledges this shameful possibility, there can be no doubt because it is a self-condemnation. And indeed, the 1994 genocide is a terrible and shameful reminder of the Western world's inability to stop something from happening... even when they knew it was happening! For more information on the genocide, we recommend Philip Gourevitch's book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.
One of many ultra-tense scenes when Paul has to schmooze to survive.
Don Cheadle grounds the film as the everyman hero - he's not hell-bent on bravery (indeed, in early scenes he waves away his wife's suggestion to help a neighbor since that neighbor's "not family"), but he is, deep down, a good man, and when he finds himself in the position of protector, he accepts it. It's wonderful to watch Cheadle as he uses his diplomatic cunning to get answers, information and favors from various characters. And, of course, Cheadle has several poignant moments when, in private, Paul can fully express his horrified grief (e.g. the scene when he can't get his tie on). The rest of the cast is good, though less effective in that they are roughly sketched stereotypes - the good wife, the harried UN official, the cynical reporter. The performances which left most of a mark on us were Fana Mokoena as General Bizimungu, who was terrifying in his hot-cold attitudes, and the unexpected cameo by Jean Reno as the Sabena Airlines President in Belgium.
And finally, a note about African cinema. We haven't seen much, and what little we have seen - Sarafina!, Tsotsi, The Last King of Scotland and The Constant Gardener - have typically dwelled on the negative aspects of Africa: the dictators, the terrible poverty, rioting and genocide. But we are reminded of something M.I.A. said,
"Why don't we ever get to hear the starving African kids say something or do something or sing something or express something? We show them but they don't have a voice."
Right now, we at the PPCC are definitely feeling that we're not hearing the real voice of Africa. We're only seeing non-African perspectives of the continent, and they're all focusing on the worst aspects. Apart from Nollywood, which a Nigerian friend promised to show us back in the day (and we're still waiting, you!), can anyone out there suggest something to soothe a curious soul? Teach us, Internet!