After many years, the extraordinary story of Paul Rusesabagina had been discovered and reported on by many various print and media sources. Chief among them, was a wonderfully-written 1998 book on the Rwandan Genocide, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, by freelance reporter Phillip Gourevitch. Rusesabagina’s tale of survival, along with that of the 1,268 people he had helped shelter, was mentioned and elaborated on in full length and detail. In 2000, Rusesabagina became a proud recipient of the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity, an award with past beneficiaries that included the likes of Reverend Desmond Tutu, a previous Nobel Peace Prize winner. The story was only bound to be taken to the big screen, and before long it was.
THE CREATION OF HOTEL RWANDA:
Keir Pearson was an aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker looking for a breakthrough when one day a close friend returned from the East African nation, Tanzania, where he had lived for seven years, armed with an amazing story. As Pearson later put it in an interview, ‘’ Paul's story was so compelling because here you had one man who decided to do something, when the great men of the Western democracies decided to do nothing.’’ Pearson sprang into action and followed the lead by calling the Rwandan embassy in Washington D.C. When Pearson told the person who picked up that he was interested in the story of the Mille Collines, the person on the other line, as fate would have it, happened to be a survivor from the very same hotel. Before long, Pearson met up with this person in D.C to chat about her inspirational experience. After hearing the story over dinner with this woman, Pearson walked away knowing that he just had to tell this story on the big screen.
‘’When I originally heard about Paul's story, it resonated with the larger picture, in that great men did nothing and here's a hotel manager who had a huge impact. His story seemed the perfect venue for getting into the Rwandan genocide. How do you tell it? It is just about so much murder and death. Honestly, I felt it needed this heroic, everyman story to kind of get people into it. I don't know if you can tell the whole genocide in a feature film, but what you can do is draw them into one person and his relationships.’’
-Keir Pearson, from interview with Oregon newspaper
Pearson later contacted Rusesabagina to talk about what he had in mind, and was invited to stay with Paul at his homes in Brussels, Belgium to speak about his story. Pearson would ultimately travel to Rwanda, but made a stopover in Brussels before traveling to Kigali. After interviewing Rusesabagina, Pearson retrieved the information that would form the basis for his eventual first draft. All Pearson needed now was a partner/director, who would be willing enough to latch onto his vision of a film with a core message that could reach the masses. Meanwhile, Terry George, who had written and directed earlier films including In the Name of the Father, was trying to find a script about Africa, when he came across Pearson, who had contacted his own agent, looking for someone to look at his first draft script. As George would later go on to say ‘’…having read that (Pearson’s first draft of the story), I then really wanted to do this story. I was deeply moved by it and realized this is the perfect story to tell--a way to explain the Rwandan genocide, hopefully.’’ It had taken a year for Pearson to pen the first draft, after first visiting Rusesabagina. Pearson and George eventually linked up, and subsequently George himself traveled to Belgium to meet Rusesabagina to elaborate on the idea of bringing his story to the big screen. Rusesabagina came back with him to Long Island, where the two, along with Pearson, sat down for several days early in 2002. Rusesabagina related his experiences to George and Pearson, who in turn created more of a polished version that built upon the first draft script that Pierson had written.
‘’The studio that backed us, MGM/UA, were very brave to do so, but it was a distribution deal. I went around all the studios before I went to MGM and pitched the story and showed them the script. And they all loved the script, but none of them were backing us because it's a three strike movie. It's got African American and African actors. That's the principal cast. The white cast are B roles. It's about Africa. And it's about genocide. So those three strikes mean you're out in Hollywood. So I don't think we fit any trend.’’
-Terry George, interview from ‘’blackfilm.com’’
Casting was the next important step after it was decided that a large feature film would be created instead of a documentary or made-for-television movie (George: ‘’I'm a deep believer that at a documentary is a different field. I don't think it allows you to do what a feature film does. I always make the analogy that a documentary is wine, and a feature film is brandy.’’) Rusesabagina had taken requests before from various filmmakers for his story to be turned into a documentary or cable movie, but felt that any message deriving from his story, would be best suited in a film bound for theaters across the world and therefore, a wider ranging audience. George had Don Cheadle in mind as playing the leading role of Rusesabagina, even before the Long Island meetings with Rusesabagina had concluded. Once Cheadle had looked over the script, he was completely on board with the project, as were other cinematic stars that appeared in the movie including Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, and Sophie Okenedo.
Rusesabagina and his wife, Tatiana, were on the set, while the movie was being shot, from beginning to end. The film was not shot in Rwanda, where current political turmoil still reigns, but rather in South Africa, mostly in the capital city of Johannesburg. Cheadle and Rusesabagina collaborated closely, both by e-mail and in person, while Cheadle even went so far as to hire a dialect coach to train and help him speak with Rusesabagina’s Rwandan accent. They eventually became close friends, and resembled long-lost relatives while doing promotional appearances for the film before and after its subsequent release in 2004. The final cost for the movie came to 17.5 million dollars, while the original rating of R was reversed to PG-13, due to the hard work of the director, George, who felt by lowering the rating, in effect would widen the potential viewing audience to include teenagers who otherwise might not been able to have gotten a chance to see it.
RESENTMENT IN RWANDA AFTER THE CINEMATIC RELEASE:
Paul Rusesabagina’s story finally reached the big screen, yet back home in Rwanda, resentment towards Rusesabagina is rampant. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has gone so far as to publicly condemn Rusesabagina for supposedly exaggerating his own role while he was interim manager at the Hotel Mille Collines. Kagame’s heavy words certainly carry clout and influence, especially among the Rwandan people with whom he is somewhat popular. Meanwhile, as recently as the summer of 2006, no plaque in the hotel honors or commemorates what happened in those fateful months of 1994, when Rusesabagina helped save 1,268 refugees from death, and even in the hotel gift store, not one copy of Hotel Rwanda was available (it was not due to lack of supply because of heavy demand, either).
Attacks were started on October 28, 2005, when a reporter from the Rwandan daily newspaper (the New Times) charged that Rusesabagina had tried only to save his own few friends, and that he ruthlessly charged people with little or no money to stay at the hotel. The reporter also hinted that Rusesabagina was planning to start his own political party, which would be a major threat to current Rwandan government authorities. Newspaper attacks soon escalated after that and when Rusesabagina was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2005, a New Times editorial lashed out, saying that Rusesabagina would ‘’go down in the annals of history as a man who sold the soul of the Rwandan Genocide to amass medals.’’
Kagame joined the attacks in February 2006, when he gave a speech on National Heroes Day at Amahoro Stadium, indirectly labeling Rusesabagina as a ‘’manufactured hero.’’ Days later, Rwandan radio ran a two-hour live talk show about Rusesabagina, featuring survivors from the genocide, and even some old friends of Rusesabagina who all criticized him. On April 6, the 12th anniversary of the start of the genocide, Kagame attacked Rusesabagina (in words) directly for the first time saying, ‘’ He should try his talents elsewhere and not climb on the falsehood of being a hero, because it's totally false.’’
In May 2006, Terry George, director of Hotel Rwanda, wrote in the Washington Post in defense of Rusesabagina, saying ‘’ I traveled to Brussels and Rwanda, and I met survivors from his hotel, some of whom still worked there. No one contradicted his story…Rwandan expatriates gave testimony to the veracity of the film, as did people who had been in the hotel and who tearfully acknowledged Rusesabagina's role.’’ George went on to detail a meeting he had with Kagame himself in May 2005, where they (along with most of the Rwandan parliament) watched the film together. Kagame praised the film, while all the feelings of hatred and venom that Kagame felt towards Rusesabagina later, were seemingly non-existent.
Yet, the intriguing fact is that the personal attacks began after Rusesabagina came out against President Kagame and his government, saying that it was not a democratic institution (Kagame’s staggering 90.5 percent winning mark raised many eyebrows) and that the government was not inclusive enough. Only then did Kagame attack Rusesabagina and the integrity of his story. Upon the publication of An Ordinary Man, an outlet where Kagame is criticized as well, attacks upon Rusesabagina's predictability increased. Nothing new seems to have changed in Rwanda, where jealousy and hatred still rules, all while a corrupt government (this one instead dominated by Tutsis) remains in control. George after making a fair and viable case for his friend and analyzing the current situation in Rwanda, concludes ‘’ Hotel Rwanda 2" is a sequel I never want to make.’’ Nor is it one the public wants to watch, but if something isn’t done soon in Rwanda, where tearing down the legacy of a humble man, who, as a matter of fact, does not consider himself a hero, has became a national pastime, then things stand only to get worse. And if things get worse, then the lessons of the 1994 genocide apparently have gone unnoticed, a thought that Rusesabagina would shudder at.