It's hard not to think of HOTEL RWANDA while watching Michael Caton-Jones' harrowing dramatization of what happened to another group of Rwandan Tutsis who found themselves trapped in the capital city of Kigali during the 1994 Hutu-led slaughter, but in some ways this may be the more important film. Not because it's any more "true" — it is, in fact, centered around fictionalized main characters — but because the fate of those Tutsis who fled their homes for the "safety" of the U.N. compound at the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO) is far more representative of what occurred that terrible spring than any other story of unlikely survival.
Rwanda, 1994: Even though the Rwandan government is now in theory a power-sharing coalition of Hutus and Tutsis overseen by a skeleton U.N. peacekeeping force (UNAMIR), the decades-old animosity between the two ethnic groups has reaching a breaking a point, and sinister signs of the impending genocide abound. Tutsi citizens are harassed and humiliated at roadblocks manned by Hutu soliders; Hutu government officials go door-to-door making lists of all known Tutsis; and the dehumanizing term "cockroach" is widely applied to the Tutsi minority, particularly by the Hutu Power radio station as it spreads incendiary, anti-Tutsi propaganda. Reports of machete attacks upon Tutsi civilians begin to trickle into the capital, and Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), an idealistic, somewhat naive young teacher at the ETO, where a Belgian deployment of UNAMIR has set up camp, believes that, under the newly implemented peace accord, all will soon be well. Even when he sees a favorite Tutsi student, Marie (Claire-Hope Ashitey), pelted by stones thrown by Hutu boys, he's more than willing to believe his veteran superior, Father Christopher (John Hurt), when he assures Joe that such turmoil is not unusual in Africa. Any illusion of African business as usual is shattered the night of April 6 when the plane carrying Rwanda's Hutu president is shot down near the Kigali airport — a suspiciously convenient provocation that gives the Hutu leaders the excuse they need to begin the wholesale slaughter of Tutsis. As swarms of panicked Tutsis rush the locked gates of the ETO and beg for protection, the Belgian UNAMIR commander Captain Delon (Dominique Horwitz) declares that his military base will not become a refugee camp. When Father Christopher demands that the Tutsis be admitted, Captain Delon refuses to violate his strict mandate that UNAMIR remain an impartial observer of the peace process and not fire upon the marauding bands of drug-crazed, machete-wielding Hutus of the Interahamwe, which have now surrounded the ETO calling for Tutsi slaughter. As Joe, Father Christopher and the Tutsis scramble to maintain order amid the growing terror and chaos, while the Interahamwe murder anyone attempting to escape the compound, an even worse development is on the horizon: The Belgian government threatens the withdrawal all of its UNAMIR troops — the only thing separating the 2,500 Tutsis within the ETO from the Hutus baying for their blood beyond the gates.
Shot on the actual locations where the depicted events took place, and employing many survivors of the Rwandan genocide both behind and in front of the camera, Caton-Jones' dramatization of an all-too-real story carries an authenticity that often makes it difficult to bear, particularly when one considers that much the same thing is now occurring in the Sudan. Caton-Jones' refusal to pull back on showing exactly what happened to the 800,000 Rwandans who were murdered that spring means that strong stomachs and even stronger nerves are required, but the film demands to be seen by anyone attempting to grasp how — and just how quickly — genocide can occur. leave a comment --Ken Fox