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Rwanda’s president once welcomed the Hollywood film. His recent attacks on the movie and its protagonist show that his government cannot handle dissent.
FEBRUARY 25, 2021, 12:09 PM
It has been more than 16 years since the film Hotel Rwanda was released. I am the film’s co-writer, director, and producer. In December 2004, when it reached theaters, the movie received widespread acclaim, modest box office success, and some Oscar nominations.
At its premiere in Kigali, Rwanda, in April 2005, I presented the film to a gathering of members of Parliament, dignitaries, and diplomats—including President Paul Kagame and his wife. The next night I showed the film in the Amahoro soccer stadium to a crowd of thousands. There was no negative criticism, just an outpouring of raw emotion at the memories the film stirred. And that should have been it.
My intention in making Hotel Rwanda was to show the horror and cruelty of the Rwandan genocide to the world. President Kagame thanked me for doing that when he sat next to me at the premier back in 2005.
The film faded at the box office, found its way to cable TV, and slipped into the annals of Hollywood history. However, later that year, the film’s protagonist Paul Rusesabagina released his biography, An Ordinary Man, and in the last chapter of that book he criticized Kagame—calling him a dictator. This denunciation kicked off an industry of revisionist criticism of the film, all of it emanating from the Rwandan government and its allies.
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Most recently, in Foreign Policy, Rwandan Ambassador to the United States Mathilde Mukantabana decided to rehash her government’s attacks on the veracity of the film in her response to a critical article by Anjan Sundaram. The ambassador regurgitated arguments that Rusesabagina charged refugees for staying in hotel rooms during the genocide, and that refugees were forced to drink water from the hotel pool.
One has to conclude that Mukantabana has never watched Hotel Rwanda—because both of those events are depicted in the movie (approximately 66 minutes and 95 minutes into the film). Hotel Rwanda is a two-hour distillation of the events that took place at the Mille Collines hotel and in the city of Kigali during those terrible days of April 1994. It contains some composite characters and a compression of events—a legitimate and widespread cinematic practice when distilling days, weeks, and months into 120 minutes—but the basic story of Paul Rusesabagina’s heroism in those days was meticulously researched in Kigali in 2002 and based on days of interviews with genocide survivors who had stayed in the hotel.
It was then fact-checked against the reporting of the late Human Rights Watch expert Alison Des Forges, Steve Bradshaw of the BBC, and New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch. Most recently, the New York Times investigated the evolution of the antagonism between Rusesabagina and Kagame in a front-page story titled “How the Hero of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Fell Into a Vengeful Strongman’s Trap.”
There are many filmmakers who would love to see their film dissected and debated with such ferocity for 16 years. I am not one of them. That’s because the current attacks on Hotel Rwanda are part of an effort to legitimize the recent rendition and arrest of Rusesabagina—and an integral part of a repressive regime’s policy of intimidating its opponents around the world. No matter how many times the film is denounced by Rwandan officials, I can go back to the interviews and the reporting by numerous reliable sources and prove Hotel Rwanda’s basic veracity.
My intention in making Hotel Rwanda was to show the horror and cruelty of the Rwandan genocide to the world. President Kagame thanked me for doing that when he sat next to me at the premiere back in April 2005 (pictured above).
His subsequent about-face and knee-jerk reaction to Rusesabagina’s criticism only highlight the lengths to which Kagame will go to maintain control of all aspects of life in his troubled country. The long-suffering people of Rwanda deserve so much more from their president, their government, and their diplomats.