On November 16, Paul Rusesabagina, on whom the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda is based, will receive a human rights prize from the Lantos Foundation, named after former congressman Tom Lantos. The reward has been contested by survivors of the genocide against Tutsis, describing Rusesabagina in their petition as an “imposter without equal.”
Since the release of the film, facts and survivor testimonies have been produced that challenge the glamorization of Rusesabagina. That makes the decision by the Lantos foundation surprising, and also not surprising.
It is surprising because a foundation in honor of a survivor of Nazi labor camps and whose advisory board is chaired by Shimon Peres should appreciate the importance of truth in a matter as grave as genocide. But it is also not surprising in light of the racist attitude that presents African issues as lacking complexity. If Hollywood says Rusesabagina is a hero, why question? Research? Verification? There’s no need: when it comes to Africa, the answers are obvious.
Three years ago, I posted my reservations about the film in light of a critique in Alfred Ndahiro and Privat Rutazibwa’s book Hotel Rwanda: Or the genocide of Tutsis according to Hollywood. My basic argument was that Rusesabagina is not just an imposter; he is an imposed hero. The West chooses heroes for us on very anti-human criteria and then uses its media, awards and global networks to impose them on us.
I am reposting here a shorter and revised version of that post.
When Alfred Ndahiro and Privat Rutazibwa’s released their book Hotel Rwanda: Or the Genocide of Tutsis According to Hollywood, which examines the Oscar nominated film’s distortion of history, a cynical Kenyan journalist wondered why the authors were making fuss about a work of fiction.
However, if the journalist had grasped the horror of what happened in Rwanda, he would have known why Ndahiro and Rutazibwa’s work was necessary to write.
In Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina, the Hutu manager of Hotel Mille Collines, saves over 1,000 Tutsis through his wit, charm, selflessness and bribing the leaders of the Interahamwe militia with cigars and alcohol.
Based on historical realities and testimonies from survivors, Ndahiro and Rutazibwa point out that the film was a gross distortion of the truth. For one, the organizers of the genocide were rich and already fully stocked with the commodities that Rusesabagina allegedly provided them. Secondly, Rusesabagina demanded payment for food and accommodation, contrary to the instructions of SABENA, the Belgian owners of the hotel.
Contrary to the film’s depiction, Hotel Mille Collines was spared the murderous wrath of the genocidaires not because of Rusesabagina’s heroism but because there were Euro-American nationals in the hotel awaiting evacuation by the UN. In addition, the genocide political machine was using the pictures of the Tutsis in the hotel to distract the world’s attention from the atrocities going on outside the hotel.
Rusesabagina has since made political and economic capital out of the misery of Rwandans. At certain forums he has minimized the atrocities committed and even pleaded the innocence of two of the main architects of the genocide.
Nevertheless, the striking aspect of the book is less the facts that contradict the movie, and more the pain of genocide survivors who watched a Hollywood sanitization of their nightmares. I can only imagine their pain, for as it is, I do not have the stomach to watch Out of Africa, The Constant Gardener, The Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond and other films on Africa produced by Hollywood.
Even with Ndahiro and Rutazibwa’s much needed insight into the problems with the film, my problem with Hotel Rwanda remains the film’s central Eurocentric and racist “love despite” narrative.
“Love despite” is the racist expression of tenderness towards Africans which simultaneously reaffirms black inferiority. As Fanon put it in his book Black Skin, White Masks, “when people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my color. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my color. Either way, I’m locked in an infernal cycle.” In Christianity, God who should logically send us to hell, redeems us out of some inexplicable love and amazing grace.
Similarly in Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina stands as the man whom their viewers should understand as having every propensity, if not every right, to kill the Tutsis seeking refuge in his hotel, but out of some unexpected benevolence chooses to save them. We don’t see him as a complicated character with his own foibles that Ndahiro and Rutazibwa talk about, or his own self-interests.
The film is the typical Euro-American response to atrocity in the world. After an atrocity, Western governments and philanthropists embark on an obsessive sifting through evil in the search for a needle in the haystack in the form of a “good slave master,”, the “good colonizer”, the “good Nazi,” the “good Hutu,” and the “good” white South African in the apartheid era who does the unexpected, which is to behave like a human being. In fact, the greater the evil, the less the expectation or obligation to behave decently, and the juicier the heroism for Hollywood, because the hero is seen as independent of all obligation and therefore acting purely out of free will.
Meanwhile, the politics, economics and historical process by which a society was structured to side with evil – in Rwanda’s case, colonialism, racism, Christianity and neo-colonialism – are conspicuously absent from the Hollywood epic.
Paul Rusesabagina does not deserve the accolades he has received. Even if he did all the things that the film depicts him as doing, which I doubt, he owed it to humanity and to justice to do them. He may have spared the lives of Tutsis in the hotel, but he is not the one who gave them that life. It is Imana who gave them the life they still have, and the life that was taken away from so many others. And it is the Rwanda Patriotic Front, not unexpected heroes, which put an end to the madness. In fact, I suspect that the love for Rusesabagina is a means for Euro-America to mask its disbelief that it is Africans, not the UN or Euro-America, who decisively ended the slaughter by the Interahamwe.
We must remember that racism, madness and mayhem are not the norm from which we should be temporarily redeemed by an unexpected hero. They are an artificial and anti-human status quo created by people, institutions and actions. Our task is to fight the conditions that produce such evil, and we cannot do that when we glamorize heroes on the basis of fantasy. We must choose our own heroes on the basis of evidence, analysis and a firm belief that human dignity should be the norm, not a delightful surprise.