Not being able to watch football or anything else since I let my satellite television subscription lapse at the close of the most recent Sopranos season, I headed to a multiplex last Sunday afternoon to join a surprisingly large crowd of non-sports fans to see Hotel Rwanda. It's the tale of the 1994 genocide, which left approximately 900,000 Tutsis dead after 100 terrible days, told through the eyes of Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu hotel manager in Kigali who sheltered over 1,000 imperiled Tutsis within the confines of his Belgian-owned luxury compound.
On its own terms, Hotel Rwanda is a fine movie about human evil on a grand scale, and the small but gratefully received acts of heroism in opposition to said evil. It's also a snazzy vehicle for the talents of Don Cheadle, an earnest and appealing actor best known for supporting roles in Steven Soderbergh films. Cheadle, who just received an Oscar nomination for the role, plays the hotel manager--and husband and father of three--as an initially meek, even Uncle Tom-ish, servant to the wealthy Europeans and Africans who are his hotel's clientele. In the face of the genocidal madness that sweeps his country, Rusesabagina unexpectedly becomes a heroic man of conscience.
It's all very well done on its own terms, but I am bothered by the tidiness of our dismay and the cleanliness of our satisfaction at the film's resolution. I think it's time to move beyond retellings of human atrocities that seek to prick our consciences with the evil that has transpired in the past, movies that recast history through the eyes of a sympathetic participant and shape the events into a three-act narrative with a happy ending. And yes, Hotel Rwanda ends happily, just as Schindler's List did. But Spielberg's movie didn't undo the Holocaust, and Irish director Terry George's Rwanda movie will not undo the grisly deaths dealt by machete while Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the European powers dithered over the definition of genocide.
To me, the most important sentiment in Hotel Rwanda is spoken by Joaquin Phoenix, who appears in a few early scenes to good effect as Jack, the requisite badass war correspondent. When Paul expresses optimism that Jack's video footage of machete-borne terror will stimulate world outrage and intervention, the bearded journalist sets him straight: "People will look and say 'How awful.' Then they'll go right on eating breakfast."
What Jack might have added, but doesn't, is, "But if you're lucky, 10 years from now people will watch the Hollywood movie version of this shit and feel sorry for you." Indeed, how many people gasping at the rather mild, PG-13 carnage on the screen actually lost any sleep as the genocide unfolded back in 1994? I know I didn't.
Clearly, images on television have lost their power to shock, particularly if the television is showing drearily familiar misery in lands of impoverished, dark-skinned people. (It was the uncomplicated exoticism of last month's tsunami that triggered the global outpouring of assistance rather than the death toll, which looks to be well under half the number who perished in Rwanda.)
The impotence of the mass news media is particularly unfortunate at this terrorized moment in history. Journalists covering Iraq and related issues (like America's use of torture) speak with increasing resignation and bitterness, for they're risking their lives for stories people aren't interested in. How can journalists get people to pay attention again, to be so sickened by what they see that they can't finish their breakfast?
I'm only being a little facetious when I suggest that the answer could be reality television. If, as Stalin supposedly said, a single death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic, then it should be the mission of television to restore tragedy to their news programming (and no, Scott and Laci Peterson don't count). We need to feel empowered by the news, to be given a sense that we can do something about it, but this can't be accomplished by giving us a daily, droning diet of numbers in the headlines, yawners we've learned to ignore such as "Three U.S. Marines were killed today in Mosul" or "A suicide bomber struck a Jerusalem bus today, killing seven."
Instead, we've got to have names, faces and personal drama. If reality television has no other virtue, it does prove that real people are often much more engaging--and cheaper to pay--than actors reading canned jokes. How much more interested viewers might have been in the news out of the Balkans if the story had been pitched as, "On today's episode of Survivor: Srebrenica, our Bosnian team of Jucel and Muhtar must find fresh water after our Serb duo of Drazen and Gordana shelled the water purification plant on last week's show." Or, "On today's episode of Fear Factor: The West Bank, Ari and Rachel have 10 hours to demolish Rana and Mahmoud's pad. Let's check in with Mahmoud." Or, "On today's episode of The Interrogator, Lt. Chip and Cpt. Dale think Abdullah's about to crack. If they're wrong, is it time for the water board? Stay tuned!"
It's unlikely news will be covered this way anytime soon, but I think such obscenely trivializing coverage would be better than our present condition of information overload, a cacophony of images and statistics that only make us tune out. But if the television networks were to convert their news divisions to such a model, imagine the informed water cooler conversations that would follow!
So, to continue this thought experiment, if the real-life Paul had starred in a show called Survivor: Rwanda back in April 1994, the episodes might have gone something like this:
Week 1, the season premiere of Survivor: Rwanda: Paul returns home to find his Tutsi neighbors hiding in his house. His in-laws have disappeared. A vicious attack on his son next door! On the radio, they're talking about killing "Tutsi cockroaches"! Back after these messages!
Week 4: Trouble with the staff. No one's working. Can Paul assert his authority? Meanwhile, the night clerk is getting awful big for his britches. How dangerous is he? A romantic night with Tatiana turns emotional when Paul gives her instructions for what to do if he's killed. Don't touch that remote!
Week 9: Water is running low at the Hotel Milles Collines. Over 1,000 Tutsis are "checked in." But the water's been cut off. Is the water in the pool safe? And Paul needs to hand over a list of the guests to the Hutu army. Will he forge a list in time? Stay tuned!
Week 13: The U.N. peacekeepers are leaving. Can Paul convince the unreliable Hutu General Bizimungo to keep offering protection? What will the general do when he realizes Paul is running out of bribe money? Back after this.
And remember folks, should Paul survive Survivor: Rwanda, he will win the prize: an all-access, family exit visa to ... BELGIUM!
And Belgium is exactly where the real Paul Rusesabagina lives today with his family. It may seem unfair and unkind to fault this well-intentioned and mostly well-made film for failing to stop the Rwandan genocide. Honestly, it's a perfectly good movie for the human conscience. It tells us a few things we probably didn't know, such as the fact that the Hutu/Tutsi schism was devised by the Belgian colonists, proto-Nazis who gave the privileges of education and good jobs to the taller, slimmer and lighter-skinned natives whom they designated Tutsi.
The film is also unsparing in its depiction of the matter of fact racism that determined who was to find deliverance in the form of the U.N. blue helmets. Probably the most wrenching sight in Hotel Rwanda is that of middle-aged nuns running into the compound, with orphans in their arms. They believe that the peacekeepers waiting in the courtyard are there for the children. Instead, the white missionaries are escorted, weeping, onto the getaway bus, leaving the children behind with the Rwandan nuns. Despite our professed belief in universal brotherhood, when the shit really starts to fly, life or death choices get made in the same old ways. As Nick Nolte's U.N. military leader Col. Oliver (a composite, but largely based on the tragically hamstrung Gen. Romeo Dallaire) says bitterly to Paul, "You're not even a nigger [to the Western world]. You're an African."
But the reality television model could give an unprecedented amount of power to history's traditional victims. One who is only an anonymous African on the 24-hour news treadmill would be transformed entirely by the power of the reality television narrative. Instead of being just another black face on a remote, suffering continent, the brave man would claim the narrative, becoming known the world over as Paul, the plucky and resourceful hotel manager, the one who races against time to save his family and 1,000 other people.
And should Paul win that coveted visa to Belgium, he and his family can settle down and watch TV in comfort and security like the rest of us. And should the gripping reality shows designed on the model of Survivor: Rwanda succeed in affecting world opinion and jolting world leaders into action, well, that's icing on the cake.