You might think a Hollywood movie about genocide in Africa would be destined for box-office disaster. Not in the case of Hotel Rwanda, which has been nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay.
Screenwriter Keir Pearson (who shares credit with the film's director, Terry George) didn't know he'd one day write about the Hutu slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis in 1994. Like many Americans, his recollections from that time were patchwork.
"I remember seeing the pictures in The New York Times, and I remember seeing the news broadcasts of the bodies flowing down the river and choking Lake Victoria," says Pearson, who was attending NYU Film School at the time. "And I remember reading about it and all the hand-wringing over do we get involved or don't we get involved?"
Then a friend returned from Tanzania with a story about Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu who'd given shelter to 1,200 Tutsis in the Mille Collines, the luxury hotel he managed. Pearson found himself unable to ignore the Rwandan genocide. From his home in Southern California, Pearson, who grew up in Portland, spoke to WW about the political kudzu that permitted mass murder, and how an early encounter with a Hotel Mille Collines survivor gave him the mandate to tell the story.
WW: Hotel Rwanda is your first full-length screenplay. By writing it, were you seeking some sort of justice?
Keir Pearson: Yes, absolutely. You know, everyone at the time said, "Oh, we're not sure it's genocide, we're unsure of what's going on"—they basically played dumb. After the fact, you start to read what was going on, that the commander on the ground was sending telegrams to U.N. headquarters saying, "They are preparing for genocide here; they're amassing arms and training this militia; all indications say, they're going to start slaughtering people." So they were warned ahead of time.
It's one thing to blame the Clinton administration because they truly did nothing. But the Belgians had the best-trained troops in Rwanda, and they knew Rwanda—it was a Belgian colony for 50 years! And they're the ones who ran the hardest and the fastest. Not only that, it was the French government that was financing the Hutu regime, and the French did nothing to stop this, either.
I realized the whole world ignored the genocide. It felt like a huge injustice. My friend told me, there's this amazing story, this guy in a hotel where a thousand people were staying in the capital of Kigali during the genocide. 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.
Did you contact Paul Rusesabagina right away?
No. The first phone call I made was to the Rwandan embassy down in D.C. This woman answered, and I tell her I'm interested in what happened at the Mille Collines, and she says, "Well, I'm a survivor from the Mille Collines." I hopped the next train down there.
Now, I have no official credentials. I'm not a part of any news organization, I'm not part of any studio, and I take this woman out to dinner, and for four hours she doesn't touch her food and tells me the most intimate and horrifying story of how she survived.
She hid in the back brush behind her house for several weeks with her 2-year-old son, and when she ran out of food and started to starve, she went to a local militia head. Because she worked for the U.N., everyone in her neighborhood thought she was rich, so she wrote this guy a million-dollar check and said, "When this genocide is over you can cash this check and you'll get a million dollars. The only thing I ask you is, you don't trade me to anybody else."
What they were doing was taking Tutsi women and raping them and treating them as sex slaves and trading them amongst each other. So for the next two months, he would come home at night, covered in the blood of the people he'd killed, [while] drunk, and rape her with her 2-year-old son in the next room. He lived in a two-room mud hut.
She endured this for two months. She would hear him adding up killings for that night in the living room. She said the most excruciating night was when he killed the neighbors, because they didn't just kill them and be done with it; they tortured them all night long, and she heard these screams. When the Tutsi army was coming through and taking over Kigali, he was preparing to flee…and instead of killing her he took her to the Mille Collines and dropped her off and fled to Zaire.
That's the first person I talked to. I walked away just thinking, I've got to tell this story.
You chose to tell the story not on an operatic scale. What made you decide to focus on one man?
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.
The script showed uncharacteristic restraint—for Hollywood—in that the character Gregoire, who repeatedly puts Tutsis in death's way, does not meet a miserable end. Not everybody gets what he deserves.
No, no, they don't. You look at the Rwandan genocide, and, at the end of the day, evil triumphed. There's a saying, all that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. We like to believe that we live in a socially just world, where bad is punished and good is rewarded, but that's just not the case.