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Friday, Jan. 20, 2006
Getting caught in the crossfire
"Schindler's List" was a troubling film, but one whose horrors occurred 50 years ago. Walking out of the cinema, you could reassure yourself with the words "Never again." The practice of ethnic extermination was left safely in the past . . . right?
Welcome to "Hotel Rwanda," an even more troubling film set in Africa in 1994, when Rwanda's Hutu ethnic majority massacred -- mostly by machete -- around 1,000,000 of the Tutsi minority in the space of about three months.
This true story has an eerie parallel to that of Oskar Schindler. Paul Rusesabagina, house manager at a European-owned five-star hotel, is studiously apolitical, focused solely on family and work, until the escalating violence leaves him with hundreds of lives in his hands.
The courage Paul displays in doing everything in his power to protect the families seeking sanctuary in his hotel is admirable. But as director Terry George ("Some Mother's Son") is quick to point out, the reaction by the civilized world was anything but.
"Never again" became "Guess again" as the United Nations and NATO forces pulled out once the Westerners in the country had been evacuated. With "Hotel Rwanda," there is no moral security blanket; you walk out of this film wondering what in hell merits intervention if not stopping genocide? (Answer: Oil. See "Syriana," opening next month.)
Paul, played by Don Cheadle ("Out of Sight," "Traffic"), is like so many of us: He sees what's coming, but refuses to admit it's possible, even when he's at a Hutu importer's warehouse and stumbles upon a cache of machetes. Paul is happy with his job, his family, so he convinces himself all will be OK -- "The U.N. are here, the world press are watching."
Paul, being Hutu, is theoretically safe, but when anarchy erupts, his Tutsi wife (Sophie Okonedo) and children are in danger, as are friends, relatives and neighbors. As the Hutu Interahamwe militia go berserk, massacring Tutsis mercilessly with the connivance of the military, Paul flees with his family to the hotel.
The Canadian U.N. commander, Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte), spares a few men to guard the hotel, but it is largely Paul's grace under pressure, his smoothness at bribery and flattery, that keeps the hotel's occupants safe.
One harrowing escape follows another, and Paul's nine lives are being used up all too quickly, but the worst is yet to come. Paul sees the Western journalists sending images of the massacres to the outside world, and he's sure there'll be a positive response. But when Col. Oliver returns in a rage, he hands Paul the awful truth: Help is not forthcoming.
In a fury of frustration, Oliver tells him, "You should spit in my face. . . . We think you're dirt, Paul. The West, the superpowers, they think you're dirt. You're not even a nigger. You're African." Nolte's bitter, bitter fury bounces off Cheadle's stunned, betrayed reaction, and the intensity of the performances here would win Oscars in a better world. (One where disability and celebrity imitation were not the most respected skills).
Director George, to his credit, manages to induce fear without resorting to an excess of graphic violence -- the threat is implied clearly enough that a little goes a long way, and really, do we want to wallow in a full-blown re-creation of that terror? It's the absolutely unbearable decisions Paul is forced to make that arouse both our pity and sense of horror. How many lives, and whose, can he buy with the last of his savings? Does he accept an exit visa to Kenya and leave the hotel at the mercy of the Interahamwe? Cheadle gives his character no false heroics, and the film is more powerful for it. "Hotel Rwanda" is a story of survival that beggars belief, and no exaggeration is necessary.
Taking a similar, personal approach to a nation's tragedy is "Innocent Voices" (original title: "Voces inocentes") director Luis Mandoki's look at children caught up in El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s.
The film is based on the true story of Oscar Orlando Torres, who fled the war for Los Angeles, but the result suggests a healthy dollop of poetic license. Imagine Gabriel Garcia Marquez penning "Stand By Me," set in a war zone imagined by Oliver Stone, and you'll have an idea of the stylistic chasm the film straddles.
"Innocent Voices" sets its story in Cuscatazingo, a small town in an area disputed by the government army and rebel forces of the FMLN. Not a lot of background is given, so know that El Salvador's dirty war was part of a regional struggle between rightwing, neofascist forces representing the land-owning oligarchies (and backed by the United States) against leftwing, socialist rebels seeking land redistribution who were supported by the peasantry, clergy and academia.
Politics is largely eschewed in the film, which focuses on the plight of children growing up in a free-fire zone. Nevertheless, the government troops come off (accurately) as the heavies, press-ganging kids into the army at age 12, raping the local women and using violence against any who resists. Eleven-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) only wants to be left alone, but he knows that within a year he'll be drafted, or have to flee to the jungle with the rebels. His protective single mother, Kella (Leonor Varela), thinks she can keep Chava close, but his uncle Beto (Jose Maria Yazpik), a rebel himself, urges him to run.
The atmosphere of oppression -- in an era when death squads operated with impunity -- is adequately conveyed, where listening to the wrong song on the radio could get you killed, and priests could be dragged into the street and pistol-whipped. (See the 1989 film "Romero" about the government's assassination of the El Salvador archbishop.) While Bush and Cheney Inc. are posturing as the democratic liberators of the Middle East, "Voices" serves as a useful reminder of what kind of "democracy" the U.S. backed in Central America.
"Innocent Voices" is easy on the eye, if hard on the heart: Director of photography Juan Ruiz Anchia has an eye for capturing the afternoon shadows and moonless nights of the jungle-ringed hamlet, and the child cast are, one and all, adorably cute. Mandoki, however, has a way of framing his cute moments with visual exclamation points that will seem familiar to viewers of Japanese dramas. "Innocent Voices" is frequently a moving, passionate film, but a little more realism and a little less artifice in its style would have served it well.