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Revisiting 'Hotel Rwanda'

An Interview with Terry George and Paul Rusesabagina

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Up to April 1994, the real-life Paul Rusesabagina worked as a hotel manager who could cheerfully procure fancy cigars or scotch for certain classy guests.

Then came the Rwandan genocide in which the Hutu people rose up against the Tutsis and killed nearly one million people over 100 days. Rusesabagina sheltered over 1000 people in his hotel, using his powers of negotiation and sheer charm to protect them for as long as he could.

Ten years later, writer/director Terry George has told this extraordinary story in the film Hotel Rwanda, with Don Cheadle turning in a remarkable performance as our ordinary man-turned-hero. Together with George, Rusesabagina has now journeyed to San Francisco to talk about the film and his experience.

Through an Irish accent, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of In the Name of the Father (1993) discusses his method of dealing with the intense subject matter.

George says he studied what documentary footage he could find and tried to re-create it as closely as possible. "The genocide is presented psychologically because there's no way I can convey the physical power of it without indulging in horror movie tactics. I take it to a certain point and then I leave it to the audience to go that step further."

The filmmaker also cleverly compressed many real life events without robbing them of their importance. In one powerful scene, Rusesabagina's family wins an emergency visa out of the country. He loads his family onto a truck, but at the last second he decides to stay behind; his wife Tatiana (played by Sophie Okonedo) screams and sobs at her husband from the back of the truck as it pulls away.

Rusesabagina says that the decision was actually made the night before, during a secret meeting. "Tatiana and the children were not willing to go alone. But I had no other choice knowing that those people were going to be killed. I couldn't be a gentleman, and eat and drink, and feel free with my life. Tatiana ended up agreeing."

Though many of the survivors from that time have approached Rusesabagina, thanking him and telling him their stories, he says the movie has opened up a whole new dialogue. "During a screening, a gentleman stood up and said, 'I am a witness to what happened. What you did, you can't see on the screen. The situation was more complicated, more horrible than that.'"

December 9, 2004

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