“It’s strange, really very strange,” Paul Rusesabagina said of seeing himself portrayed in a major film. He and Irish writer-director Terry George were visiting Dallas for a screening of “Hotel Rwanda,” the film that dramatizes Rusesabagina’s efforts, while serving as a hotel manager in Kigali in 1994, to rescue more than a thousand Tutsi and moderate Hutu refugees during the slaughter that swept over his country in that year, when a Hutu militia attempted the equivalent of ethnic cleansing in the region. “Because in 1994,” he continued, “I was very sure of one thing–I knew I was going to be killed. And then I was surprised I didn’t die. The rest of my life is just a bonus. And during that bonus, you can imagine how emotional it can be to see yourself on the screen. It was unbelievable. I never thought I’d see such a thing until I saw it on a real screen.”
For George, who’d previously worked as a writer on several of Jim Sheridan’s films and made his directing debut with “Some Mother’s Son” in 1996, making Rusesabagina’s story was the end of a long process. He’d been wanting to do a script on problems in Africa for some time, and worked on one about turmoil in Liberia before being sent a screenplay that Keir Pearson had based on Rusesabagina’s story. “The story had all the elements in it that I wanted to convey in what I was trying to do,” he said. “So I met with Keir, and we agreed that we’d do the story together. And then I went over and met Paul in Belgium, and basically tried to reassure him that I could get a feature film made.” It wasn’t as though he was an expert on the events of 1994, however. “It was an alien place to me,” George said of Rwanda. “I had no concept of what it looked like. When the attacks broke out, it seemed to me, as it seemed to the rest of the world, like two tribes in Africa beating each other to death. And suddenly it turned into this enormous slaughter. It was only when I started to read about it that I realized the sophistication of the event itself, the sophistication of the forces involved and the propaganda they used. That was one of the objectives of this film–to try to explain to a wider audience that it wasn’t two tribes of savages beating each other over the head with clubs and machetes. It was a background which was similar to the Holocaust and similar to Bosnia. Not quite similar to the killing fields in Cambodia, because that was a totalitarian kind of craziness. But the symptoms of genocide were common throughout…the monumental scale.” By concentrating on Rusesabagina’s story, George was able to give a personal face to the larger horror and show human decency and courage surviving amidst the carnage.
When it came time to think about someone to portray Rusesabagina, George knew whom he preferred. “[Don Cheadle] from the start was the one I wanted to cast,” he said. George had seen Cheadle in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” but was especially impressed by his turns as Sammy Davis, Jr., in the HBO film “The Rat Pack” and then in “Traffic.” The director remarked of the actor, “He can disappear into a role and become a character…so I knew that was the perfect sort of casting.” He approached Cheadle with the possibility of starring in the picture, but with a caveat. “I cautioned him,” George said. “I said, ‘Look, if somebody comes along with the money to make it, and wants A or B–which they did, there was never any C–I’d have to give that serious consideration. But then, when we got the distribution deal with United Artists and we raised the money ourselves, then I was able to go back to Don and say, ‘The show’s on the road here.’”
Rusesabagina couldn’t be more pleased with Cheadle’s dedication. “When he was cast, he immediately got in touch with me,” he recalled. “We corresponded through e-mail. He wanted to know who I was, my school background, my childhood, where I was born, how I grew up…how I dress, how I eat, how I drink.” The two later met in South Africa, where most of “Hotel Rwanda” was shot. (“There were enormous bonuses and a few drawbacks” to shooting there, George interjected. One problem was the weather: “It didn’t even have the decency to rain all day. It would be sunny in the morning and then pour in the afternoon.”) Rusesabagina continued, “We sat down together and we talked, we shared meals and drinks and days and nights. We spent hours together. [Later] in Johannesburg we were together for fifteen days, where he was observing me closely and following my accent.” And when Cheadle was in Europe shooting “Ocean’s Twelve,” Rusesabagina added, “he came to Brussels with his wife to see the children who were supposed to be his children [in the film].” He added, “We were very close. He tried to be myself.”
The two other internationally-famous members of the cast came aboard because of the importance of the material. Nick Nolte plays the head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda, whose troops prove unable to deal with the crisis. “Nick got the script himself and contacted us,” George said. Joaquin Phoenix plays an American photographer who’s the first to get evidence of the massacres. “Joaquin I had worked with on ‘Ladder 49,’” he added. “I just called him up and sent him the script, and he agreed to do it for nothing.” The Nolte and Phoenix characters are both composites of actual people, George noted. The ages of the Rusesabagina children represented another of the alterations to the record that George made in his script. The two older children actually were in their mid-teens in 1994, but the director explained, “I needed for the audience to experience…the effect on kid kids, not teenagers…so I dropped all their ages by about four years, just so you could see the emotional impact [the genocide] had on kids.” And he pointed out one other alteration he’d made–the addition of a scene in which Rusesabagina’s car gets lost on a trip outside the hotel complex and comes upon a massacre site. “The river road scene with the dead bodies never happened to Paul,” George said, “but he had told me about seeing bodies afterwards…and I needed at that point [in the story] to take the audience to the middle of the ‘Heart of Darkness,’ of the genocide when it was at its worst. In the middle [of the picture] you needed to see the depth of the depravity of the militia…that level of slaughter.”
George emphasized, though, that most of “Hotel Rawanda” is a close approximation of the actual events–something he took as a great responsibility. “The great thing about Paul’s story is that all of those events inside the hotel, all those crazy events–all those were true,” he said. “Of all the films I’ve done, this one left me feeling that I’ve got closer to the chronology and the reality of the situation. And I think that’s the obligation, because ultimately films like this will become the educational point of reference for future generations. Some people lament that, but for good or bad it’s the reality. ‘The Killing Fields’ will be the only point of reference that most of us will see of the Cambodian genocide, and ‘Missing’ is probably the only point of reference we have of the Pinochet years. And certainly ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The Pianist’ are going to be big points of reference for the Holocaust.” If “Hotel Rwanda,” as seems likely, comes to serve a similar function with respect to the events of 1994, George will have made an important film indeed, and Paul Rusesabagina will be recognized as a latter-day Oskar Schindler.