TERRY GEORGE Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
November 11, 2004
Based on true events that occurred in the political hotzone of 1994's Rwanda, Hotel Rwanda chronicles the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a real life hero who used his resourcefulness and connections as an upscale hotel manager to save the lives of over 1,000 refugees. Tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi, two Rwandan social factions, had set the stage for a bloody genocide, and nearly 1,000,000 people were killed in the span of 100 days while most of the world stood by and did little to intervene.
Hotel Rwanda is directed and co-written by Terry George (In the Name of the Father) and stars Don Cheadle in a dramatized portrayal of Paul Rusesabagina. In this exclusive interview, Terry talks about the balance of politics and drama that went into this eye-opening film.
RadioFree.com: In your approach to telling this story, why did you choose a dramatization over a documentary?
TERRY: Re-creation of the political events or trying to stick too close to a documentary style, I think, doesn't allow the audience to relax into a story in the same way that they engage in a personal story, an individual drama. And for this, I wanted people to feel that they were going to a movie, not something that was going to preach to them or tell them what way to think.
Where were you in 1994 while these events were occurring in Rwanda?
I was in Ireland shooting another movie. And the Irish newspaper, The Irish Times in particular, it's pretty good about foreign copy. So they did what they could, and I was up to date on it, but didn't quite catch on to the catastrophe that it was. Not that I could have done anything, but it was late in the day for me to recognize that.
Do you feel that the Irish press gave more coverage to the events than the American press?
You know, I'm reluctant to say that because I don't have anything to compare it by. What I've seen of The New York Times and Time magazine was that when they caught on to it, they tried to bring attention to it. But it's hard to say whether there was culpability in the media itself rather than an inability to cover the events and keep track of it at the time.
What prompted your desire to bring this story to the screen?
Well, I was trying to do a script on Africa, and then I came across the work of my co-writer, Keir Pearson, who's worked on this story. And having read that, I then really wanted to do this story. I was deeply moved by it and realized this is the perfect story to tell--a way to explain the Rwandan genocide, hopefully.
Did you consider telling any part of the story from the viewpoint of the Hutu extremists?
No. I mean, the radio states upfront what they're thinking. "The Tutsi sided with the Belgian colonists and repressed them, and therefore they're not to be trusted." That was the Hutu extremist point of view. The General Bizimungu character, I wanted a level of complexity to it so that you understood there were different degrees of involvement or avoidance of the genocide. Clearly, he's a guy who had his doubts, but, through his own corruption and his position, was forced into participating. And that's how I understood that character from Paul, whereas [the character of] George Rutagunda was just steeped in this hatred and genocidal desire of wiping out the whole Tutsi population.
How long have you been working on this film?
Just past three years.
Considering that this project is so near to your heart and you obviously wanted to do the story justice, are you very satisfied with the final results?
I am. I was nervous all along about getting there, but I think what we set out to do is tell this modern day African hero story in a way that ordinary people will relate to him, and see that if they can tap into a moral courage, that they could possibly be Paul. He's not a superhero, he's not somebody outside the conceptualization of ordinary people. That was the primary objective, and also to show just the strength of his love story and the family unit, and then this thriller element of the whole story itself. And finally, the political quagmire and the intensity and enormity of the genocide itself. And I think on all those levels, we've done pretty good.