Genocide and Us

Last night I went to see Hotel Rwanda, which opened here in Houston last weekend. I'm always a bit wary of "big event" or "big issue" movies, because they can have some problems. First, they can make major events seem small. Second, they have a tendency to let us off the hook, as viewers and as citizens. They do this by offering up the heartwarming story that takes the focus off of the events or issues that are the backdrop to that story. They often throw the audience a hook to feel better about themselves and their own community and its relation to what is depicted on screen.

Hotel Rwanda suffers from neither of these flaws. It's unflinching in presenting the horror of the Rwandan genocide of the 90s, and simply offers up the historic facts; when mass killing on an unprecedented scale began in Rwanda, the rest of the world turned its back on the small African nation and allowed hundreds of thousands of people to be brutally murdered - most often hacked up with machetes. The film makes no attempt to answer the question of how this could happen in 1994, and how Europe and the United States could make no serious attempt to intervene. It doesn't particularly dwell on it, either. We simply see these events unfolding as the film follows the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who is trying to keep his family and the people who have taken refuge in his hotel alive.

It's a powerful film. It doesn't overreach; it simply follows one story amidst the horror that was unfolding, and does so with outstanding performances by all. It's one of the few times I've seen a film in a theater and no one in the audience has uttered a word for the entire two-hour length. When the credits rolled and we left, a number of people were visibly shaken, including a teenage girl who seemed to have attended with her parents who looked as though she'd just witnessed the death of a family member.

It helps to know more background of the genocide when watching the film. The film doesn't attempt to tell that whole story (which would be impossible in this type of movie anyway). There's an excellent book on the subject that I read some years ago, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, that painstakingly documents not only the genocide itself but the factors that led up to it, from the time of Belgian colonialism in Rwanda to the present. It is not easy to read but it is well worth your time. It will leave you angry and frustrated at our own government, which not only failed to intervene despite clear evidence of what was going on, but actually because an impediment to anyone in the western world taking action. It was a failure of the Clinton administration that, in my mind, tainted everything about their time in Washington and while it lacks the the sheer malfeasance of the buildup to the Iraq war, in many ways the outcome is even more horrifying. For me, Rwanda is one of the reasons that as awful as I think our current government is, I can't look back all that fondly on the time before Bush.

Why is it that the United States ignores events like the Rwandan genocide? Each time we think it's an isolated mistake, but in fact the US has never taken serious action to quell genocide. We've come in at the tail end to clean up, but even when we've clearly known what was happening, we don't seem to do anything about it. It's a pressing question right now, considering that just days ago Colin Powell was simply declining to answer questions about the apparent genocide in Sudan.

It's easy to say "Because they're Africans" but that really doesn't answer it. What about Bosnia? What about the Holocaust? What is it about human nature - or American nature, I don't know which it is - that makes us want to help Asian victims of the tsunamis, but not African victims of genocide? Is it natural versus political disasters that make us react differently? (But then why don't we respond similarly to the horrible death toll of malaria - something that, relatively speaking, would be easier to deal with?)

I don't know the answers. I doubt they are simple. The ever-helpful Amazon recommendation engine popped up with this when I searched for the Gourevitch book: "A Problem from Hell" : America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power, which explores these kinds of questions. I'm going to have a look at it.

In the meantime I recommend Hotel Rwanda, as a good movie and as something to make you ask yourself hard questions about the role of the US in the world.

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