Oscar hopeful sheds light on recent events

In April 1994, while the country around him bled and burned, Paul Rusesabagina shielded himself, his family and some 1,200 refugees at his place of employment, the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda. The place became a shelter and a siege zone, as Rusesabagina used his wits, resources and business connections to protect his people in the face of almost certain death.

If Rusesabagina emerged as a sort of Oskar Schindler of the Rwandan genocide, then “Hotel Rwanda” is the African equivalent of “Schindler’s List.”

But where “Schindler” in 1993 was merely the latest (if most acclaimed) example of a long tradition of storytelling about the Holocaust, “Hotel Rwanda” in 2004 is the first studio picture to directly address a recent catastrophe — one fresh in the memories of the few who endured it, but still distant to the vast majority of Americans.

As Rusesabagina himself — played by Don Cheadle in the film — wryly puts it, “It is not easy to sell a genocide.”

Faced with that difficulty — not to mention the challenge of selling a predominantly black cast, despite supporting turns by Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix — writer-director-producer Terry George, co-writer Keir Pearson and producer Alex Ho narrowed their focus.

George says he found in Rusesabagina’s story “the perfect vehicle … to walk American and European audiences through an event that they have absolutely no comprehension of.” In the process, they stumbled on a classic Oscar-friendly formula of romance, family bonds and personal heroism set against the backdrop of war.

The resulting film doesn’t deliver a definitive or even comprehensive vision of the tragedy that saw more than 800,000 Tutsi civilians and their Hutu sympathizers murdered in a matter of months. Ho says they set out to make a largely interior movie, following the model established by Sam Peckinpah’s claustrophobic under-siege movie “Straw Dogs,” albeit with far less violence.

In fact, aside from a few shadowy glimpses of corpses piled on the roads and grainy TV images of the killers in action, the filmmakers deliberately avoided depicting the bloodshed in graphic detail.

“This has to be one of the most savage wars in a hundred years — just the enormity of the physical violence, a million people macheted to death,” George says. “There’s no way (to get that across), unless you use horror film tactics and prosthetics and all that stuff, and I didn’t want to.”

“We made a conscious effort to keep the slaughter minimal,” Ho says. “How could you ever show something like that? It’s so ugly. It’s amazing to be able to even contemplate that you could actually show it on the screen, the reality of it.”

It may sound like an odd decision from the man who produced Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy: “Platoon” (1986), “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) and “Heaven & Earth” (1993). But where Vietnam was burned into the American consciousness, Rwanda, which drew little involvement from the U.S. government during or after the genocide, remains a half-forgotten blip on the political radar.

“Ask anybody what was happening in ’94, they probably remember O.J. Simpson,” Ho says. “That was the big headline in this country.”

Ho and George were intent on securing the widest possible audience — and a PG-13 rating — even if it meant soft-pedaling the atrocities.

Even still, no studio would attach itself to the project until after Ho had secured financing from the U.K.; Italy; and South Africa, whose Industrial Development Corp. was looking to bolster its film biz. Having secured Cheadle and actress Sophie Okonedo (who had first caught Ho and George’s attention in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things”) to play Rusesabagina’s wife, the producers headed for the Toronto Film Festival in September 2003, where MGM/UA and Lions Gate signed on to handle domestic and international distribution, respectively.

Lensing began Jan. 11 in Johannesburg, South Africa, running on a tight nine-week schedule made even tighter by haphazard weather conditions and by Cheadle’s prior commitment to “Ocean’s Twelve.” The production encompassed a total of 17,000 Rwandan extras, several of whom attempted at one point to stage a labor strike.

Through it all, Rusesabagina stayed with the crew, even going back to Kigali for a week of location coverage, to answer questions about his experience and offer feedback.

Rusesabagina, who today lives in Brussels, Belgium, with his wife and six children, says the film represents his story “about 90%.”

More important, he notes, the message is clear and intact. “The main objective is to get people sensitive to what is happening all over the world. It has been happening in the Congo for the last eight years. More than 3 million have been butchered, massacred — innocent civilians. And no one can raise a single finger and say no. This is a shame to the world, the whole world. It has happened. It shouldn’t happen anymore.”

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