Set in 1994, “Hotel Rwanda” has earned three Academy Award nominations — one for George and co-writer Keir Pearson for Best Original Screenplay, one for Best Actor for Don Cheadle, who portrays Rusesabagina, and one for Sophie Okenado, who plays Tatiana.
For George, meeting with the subject of the film he directed and co-wrote proved a valuable experience, one that allowed him to zero in on the most human elements of the complex story of how a million people were slaughtered in Rwanda, over 100 days, while the world looked on.
“I did the same sort of thing with Gerry Conlon for ‘In the Name of the Father,’ ” George recalled. “You sit with people for an intense period and as you talk, I think the soul of the story — the detail that you need — comes out. And that, I feel, is very worthwhile.”
George said that when he was working on “In the Name of Father,” he took a road trip to and from Key West, Fla., with the wrongly imprisoned Irishman, all the while taping their conversations “to get to the heart of it.”
“In Paul’s case — Paul has a phenomenal memory for it — that Long Island meeting was essential to get the details,” he said.
Although he has enjoyed success working on Irish films like “The Boxer” and “In the Name of the Father,” George confessed he has for years wanted to make a picture about Africa.
“I had seen coverage of the Liberian Civil War, and the Sierra Leone civil war, and Somalia, and I generally have this opinion that our media in particular, and Hollywood, had actively ignored Africa,” George said. “Given the sort of ferocity and anarchy of those conflicts, they seemed to be the perfect places to look for political stories to tell.”
The filmmaker said he started off trying to write the story of ordinary Africans living through the conflicts but then discovered the first draft of a script that Pearson had written after he had heard Rusesabagina’s story from a journalist friend. George said that when he read Pearson’s version of the tale, he immediately knew he wanted to film it. George set up the meeting with Rusesabagina, then devoured every article and book he could find written about the massacre. Any doubt George may have had about tackling the difficult project vanished when he made a pilgrimage to Murambi, a genocide memorial site in Southern Rwanda.
“The impact of that visit was overwhelming to me,” he said. “Murambi is a technical college on a hill, overlooking other hills. In April of 1994, the local Hutu mayor politician encouraged the Tutsi to flee to the Murambi technical college for protection. And then, when he had massed together over 40,000 of them, the Interahamwe moved in, and over the course of four days they slaughtered every one of them. Except for four. Only four of them survived.”
George said the bodies were pushed into mass graves and sprinkled with lime and by a cruel joke of nature, the lime mummified, instead of decomposed, the victims in the last throes of their lives. Many of the bodies can still be seen in situ today.
“The most remarkable and saddest thing to me was the lime turned their skin white,” he said, pointing out the absurdity of race-based conflict. “So, the very color of skin that would have saved their lives, they had become in death. Then, when we were leaving, they took me to a condolence book. I was standing there, and what do you write in a condolence book after that? So, I wrote in that book, ‘I promise to tell this story.’ And from that moment on, I was going to make the film whether I was shooting it on Digital Video with Rwandan actors or no matter what we did. I was making it, you know?”
While at first glance “Hotel Rwanda” might appear to be the latest political-minded thriller off the Hollywood assembly line, following in the vein of “Black Hawk Down” and “Tears of the Sun,” George insisted his film is unlike anything the major studios are churning out these days.
” ‘Black Hawk Down’ is not an African movie,” he argued. “That’s a U.S. Marines thriller or recruiting film. I talked to [screenwriter] Antoine Fuqua, and he, I think, wasn’t particularly happy with the outcome of that; how it evolved. The studio that backed us — MGM/UA — was 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 [on board.] 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 a genocide. So, those three strikes mean you’re out in Hollywood. So, I don’t think we fit any trend.”
That said, George admitted he worked hard to make “Hotel Rwanda” a PG-13 film that functioned as a romance and thriller and that will entertain moviegoers who might not be interested in the politics of a faraway land.
“When I was making this film, I was determined that this would not be a horror show,” he said. “The elements of genocide that I was incapable of re-creating — and I think are incapable of being re-created — the savagery of it — it was really important that I create the psychological atmosphere of genocide rather than the visual. So, that an audience can come and not feel that they’re going to experience revulsion.
“If people are not interested in the political backdrop, they can go in there and sit through a good film, and leave feeling their $10 was well spent.”