Rwanda's genocide comes to the big screen

By Time of article published Apr 2, 2004

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Children scream. Smoke billows. A fighter holds a gun to a man's head and orders him to kill his cowering family.

A decade after Rwanda's genocide, the horror of the hundred-day slaughter the world did little to stop is being brought to the big screen through the tale of one man's courage in the face of unspeakable terror.

Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle and Nick Nolte, recounts the true story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered more than 1 200 Tutsis from Hutu militias at the elite Hotel des Mille Collines.

Among them were businessmen, politicians and other members of the Tutsi elite who were the prime targets of the Hutu fighters who shot, burned, drowned and hacked their victims to death with machetes. Estimates of the dead range from 500 000 to one million.

Director Terry George calls the massacres that began on April 7, 1994, "one of the greatest collective shames of the rest of the world".

Known for his films on the conflict in Northern Ireland, George had been looking for a project about Africa, a place of sweeping drama, raw emotion and visually arresting images he says is too often reduced in films to scenes of children chasing after exotic animals.

He first came across Rusesabagina's story in a script by New York University film school graduate Kier Pearson.

"It seemed to me it was the perfect story for what I do - the personal, human story with a deeply political picture behind it," George says over a hasty lunch in the set's tent canteen. "As soon as I read the script, I decided I had to do it."

He flew to Belgium to meet Rusesabagina and reworked the script.

Convincing a studio to make the film and raising funds for the project was a challenge - particularly coming after George's directorial debut, Some Mother's Son, an award-winning movie on the 1980s hunger strikes in Northern Ireland.

"You get the look of, 'Uh-oh, this lunatic's back,'" he said ruefully.

At its heart, however, George says the film is a universal tale of good versus evil and the relationship between a man and his wife.

"It is an amazing love story, and a story about the ability of the ordinary man to dig down into himself and find enormous courage and ability," he says.

Cheadle, who starred in the Academy Award-winning Traffic and hit Ocean's Eleven, jumped at the opportunity to play Rusesabagina.

"So much of what I see as far as scripts go is dreck," he says. "There are usually two to three scripts a year I can get excited about - and two of them will probably go to Will Smith."

Sophie Okonedo, a British actress whose credits include Dirty Pretty Things, plays his wife, Tatiana.

Filming began in January and the MGM/UA production is set for release around October. It is one of three projects about the genocide in production this year, one of which is currently being filmed in Rwanda.

While George collected some footage from there, his movie was mostly shot in South Africa, where a growing film industry supplies experienced actors and crew members.

Aobut 10 000 extras - including refugees from Rwanda, Burundi and Congo now living in South Africa - were hired to bring the epic to life. In an unusual step, George asked local directors to work with different groups to ensure there was as much going on in the background as the foreground.

For some, the scenes they were asked to recreate were a painful reminder of the past. One woman broke down in tears on set. When Cheadle tried to comfort her, she showed him the machete scars on her back and legs.

"I can't imagine being an extra in this movie if you have lived through it," Cheadle says between takes in the hotel lobby. "This is the world's failing - from the Rwandans who participated in this massacre, to those who stood idly by hoping what was happening would not touch them, to the world body that had many opportunities along the way to end this and who did nothing."

When the real Rusesabagina arrives on set, Cheadle greats him in the traditional Rwandan way - clasping hands and gently tapping their heads together on each side.

Rusesabagina has worked closely with cast and filmmakers to ensure authenticity. It has been a moving experience for him.

"In 1994, we were condemned to death, and I was first on the list because I was the one protecting refugees," said Rusesabagina, a quiet, regal man in a mustard-coloured suit. "When I see the film... it wakens the old demons."

By the end of June 1994, Rusesabagina was sheltering 1 268 terrified people at the hotel, on a hill overlooking the burning city. Improvised tents filled the grounds, and he rationed water from the swimming pool.

Hutu soldiers regularly came by the hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. But Rusesabagina used his influence as a prominent Hutu businessman - whose wife and mother were nevertheless Tutsi - to protect those sheltering there.

"I never thought I was being brave," says Rusesabagina, who now lives in Belgium with his wife and four children. "I was just working as quickly as possible to avoid disaster." - Sapa-AP

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