29th HKIFF Series : Hotel Rwanda and Gunner Palace – Some thoughts (originally posted on 29/3/2005 2:10:00)

For this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival, there are quite a bit of movies and documentaries that reflect on topics that did not make it to the news. Hotel Rwanda and Gunner Palace are two of them.

Gunner Palace – an Oxymoron?

Mike Tucker has arrived Baghdad right after Bush declared end of “major combat” in Iraq. He has joined the 2/3 Field Artillery, First Armor Division, US Army, a.k.a. “Gunners”, for an insider look at what is like to be an American soldier in Baghdad. Surrounded by a nation of people who see the US military, as a collective, as the evil conqueror of Iraq, their job has turned from being artillerymen to security guard, drill sergeant, police detective and target rolled into one. For the Gunners, in the surreal world that is Iraq, their billet was a former pleasure palace of Uday Hussein, son of Saddam Hussein. Hence the name of the documentary, Gunner Palace.

The style of the documentary is from the same perspective that the troopers had, since Tucker followed them out on patrols, as well as catching glimpses of the soldiers’ life inside the palace. There was little music to constitute a score, but that wasn’t necessary. The soldiers’ rap talk, poetry and their guitars playing provided a musical perspective to their frustration and opinion on the war, like Rumsfield’s refusal to provide armor upgrade kits for Humvees.

This is very much a “behind-the-scene” view of the days after Second Iraqi War, from the eyes of grunts that are living the scenes. There was no blood and gore, no fighting scenes, yet as an audience you know those things happen every day, and the troopers are always aware of the consequences of these incidents. Telltale signs such as explosions in the distance, radio communication of attacks and roadside bombs sightings, as well as verbal accounts from the soldiers themselves, told a grim story for the predicament of their mission. And their mission changed day-by-day: one day it is a patrol around their sector, the other day might be a raid for insurgents or weapon caches, yet another day might be answering an emergency call for support. Just by being outside their complex means mortal danger for them, no matter from a stone, rifle, RPG, or a roadside bomb.

That said, since the barracks IS a palace, there are some really weird R&R for the Gunners, like a dip in the pool with a Snapple (no alcohol is officially allowed), or a poolside party after a successful raid, or risking one’s life for a whopper at the Burger King outside the complex. While the audience is free to place whatever judgment on the as they see, ultimately the troops are fighting the war for the survival of themselves and their buddies, not for WMD or the ousting of Saddam or even oil. Besides, the troops live in that set of the ‘show’, which most people would perceive when they watch their daily news and went back to their dinners. I guess those who will feel the most watching this film will be Americans with a conscience; that will give them something to chew on while they consider what had happened ever since their people voted G.W. Bush into office.

Hotel Rwanda – the genocide that comes with your main course

Unlike Iraq, Rwanda was somewhat different. The genocide of Tutsi people in the nation of Rwanda had horrified the world in the year 1994, yet due to the retreat of all western support and failure of UN and US from providing official sanction in stopping the massacre, people got killed, and the media moved on to other stories less dangerous to cover. While this is not intended to slam on the media, one of the characters in the film Hotel Rwanda, says the truth of people on the debacle: “If people see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible,’ and they’ll go on eating their dinners.” Everyone, the media, the wealthy countries, all of us, lent a hand in allowing Tutsi people being killed in that bloody year.

Hotel Rwanda started with a peaceful scene with an uneasy undertone. Paul Rusesabagina was the manager of a Belgian luxury hotel in the Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. He was well paid, has a lovely wife and three children, he did interesting work serving wealth westerners, built relationship with powerful people in the country with wit and cunningness for protection and procurement, and lived a comfortable life. But something isn’t right. Hutu and Tutsi people in the country was at war, settling blood feud that went back to German and Belgian colonial time. The actions of Tutsi rebels has not affect the everyday life of Tutsi citizens, but that is about to change. When Hutu started to systematically kill off Tutsi from the country, UN and America has refused to provide diplomatic and military support to intervene. All they did was evacuation of westerners; all the Tutsis has was a token force of UN peacekeepers that were mere doorstops against the Hutu mob. Somehow, the refugees has learnt that some Tutsis has seek refuge in the hotel, as Belgium has threatened retribution against the country on damage for Belgian property in Rwanda. Thus, refugees flocked to the hotel for safety. Paul has to make a choice: should he leave the refugees to die, which basically means he would had to drive his Tutsi wife away, or should he try his best and risk everything to save these people?

People compare this movie with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Yet, even though the feats that Rusesabagina pulled off is as great as Oscar Schindler’s, he was subjected to even greater odds, as his family and himself, as well as the lives of the refugees were at risk, comparing with Schindler, who was a member of Nazi, thus safe during the whole process of the rescue. By comparison, while Paul’s action is less of the selfless sacrifice that Oscar did, there was a necessity that Paul must address.

Directing wise, Terry George, as the director, is not Spielberg. Not that he had to be, because he has created a masterpiece in vivid image of how the Rwandans were abandoned by the west, and how Rusesabagina save the flock that he had at the hotel. Exercising less on graphic details of the Hutu atrocities, George relied more on the interaction of between the nervous yet calm Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, and the rest of the cast, which included Nick Nolte as the Canadian UN officer, Joaquin Phoenix as Jack the camera man, and Jean Reno as the Belgium company president, which Rusesabagina served. The pace of the movie was tense, as the hotel was constantly under threat and the hint of impending disaster taxed the nerves of the refugees as well as the audience.

At the end, Hotel Rwanda is not a movie that you see for fun. You have to be in a certain mood to see it, or you will be in for a real shock. But that can be a good thing, as both films are works that questioned: how the abundance of information in this age has nullified the senses of the mass on man-made disasters, reducing such tragedy into news items that become history in a relatively short timeframe. How come people can do such horrible things to fellow countrymen, where hate and old feud played a major role. How the lack of initiative from the mass has failed to stop atrocities, when you and me and him and her choose not to care and help about things that are far from our immediate interest. And people die because of all these. Hotel Rwanda, as well as Gunner Palace, was the epitome of these things that we, as a human being, had to consider, for humanity as we know, rest upon our stance on such issues.

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