TERRY GEORGE - Framing Rwanda

Terry George“In this case, the strangest thing is the bulk of this film, Paul says it’s 90%, I don’t know how you put a thing on it, is true. But events that we show, particularly in the hotel, are exactly how they went. That was the attraction to me. The events, as they say, were stranger than fiction. Roger going next door and finding that the neighbours are dead, the Hutu workers taking over the luxury suites, the whites leaving, the convoy leaving, even the family hiding in the bath, all of those were the way it happened. For me the things that I had to do for the film were more compilation characters. All the whites are basically compilation characters of various UN officers and journalists and Red Cross workers. Then I think the only big creation was that trip out to the warehouse and the dead bodies on the road. Paul did encounter that level of corpses on the road but it happened after he escaped from the hotel, when he went to drive south with Tatiana, to try and find her family. But I needed at that point to take the audience out into what we call the heart of darkness, the middle of the genocide, to see the systematic slaughter and the reality of this notion to wipe out the whole Tutsi population.”

 

What challenges did you face making this?
 
“When I had the script written, I took it all round Hollywood and no-one wanted to make it. It wasn’t until I met Alex Ho, my co-producer, and he decided that the only way to raise the money was to go independent, that we made headway. I went to the Toronto Film Festival and pitched it to various people, and the South Africans and indigenous media and Mikado, between those three, that’s how we got the money.”
 
Any difficulties when you were shooting the film?
 
“It was a week in  Rwanda and then 50 days in  Johannesburg. The weather didn’t work out for us and we had a lot of extras, so moving those around and organising them was difficult. I loved Johannesburg but it’s a tough city. And there was not enough time and not quite enough money for the scope of the film we envisaged. But all the films I do I expect that to be the case, anyway.”
 
It is hard to believe that genocide is still happening.
 
“Well the word genocide was only invented in 1944 by a Polish Jew called [Raphael] Lemkin. He needed a word to encapsulate the systematic slaughter of an ethnic or religious group by, usually, a government. I think after the Holocaust there was a promise made by various politicians ‘never again’; they established a convention on genocide at the UN. But what has happened is that almost every 10 years, from the Cambodian genocide to Bosnia to  Rwanda, and now  Sudan, even though the UN has declared it’s not technically genocide, this keeps happening. Clearly that indicates a sort of inability of the west, that their lack of willpower to intervene, particularly in Rwanda.”
 
Genocides always begin with the dehumanisation of the targeted group.
 
“Yeah, exactly.”
 
Did no-one see this coming then, given the way that Tutsis were constantly referred to as cockroaches on the radio and so on?
 
“There’s an infamous fax from General Dallaire, the UN commander at the time, in January of ’94, that was sent to UN headquarters in New York, stating, from an informant within the Habyarimana government, that there was a plan being drawn up for the systematic elimination of the Tutsi and that the Hutu extremists, the militia and the government were gathering together weapons. So it’s not like they didn’t know. There were a lot of indicators: schoolchildren were being separated at school into Tutsi and Hutu, and in churches and community groups, so all the indicators were there. And like you say, that radio station, RTLM, was broadcasting non-stop incitement: the cockroaches needed to be wiped out and the vermin needed to go, and all the language of genocide was being practised. So the signals were all there. I guess the thing that conflicted that was the UN’s move to foment this peace agreement in Tanzania where it looked as though they could enforce a coalition government.”
 
Did you use real radio broadcasts in the film?

”I didn’t use real footage but I used the exact language. Obviously, we broadcast it in English, but it was originally in French and Kirwandan. But ‘the graves are not yet full. Who will help us come and fill them?’ and the code for the genocide, ‘cut the tall trees’, all of those things are real. And then the sequence where the convoy leaves and Tatiana and the family are trying to escape, that’s actually how they were tracked: the radio announced this convoy is leaving, and they talked about the people that were on it, including Paul’s family and his friends and youngest son. For me that radio station was the catalyst for the genocide. It’s what turned what possibly would have been an escalation in the civil war and acts of reprisal into the systematic genocide, because it ordered peasants in the countryside that they must kill their neighbours. So that was the kind of uniqueness of it.”
 
Were the broadcasters arrested?
 
“Yeah, four of the DJ’s were sentenced to life in prison, including one Belgian. There was a notorious Belgian DJ, which gave the appearance to the Hutu that they had the tacit backing of the west in this attack. But the owner is still at large. I think he moves between Tanzania and  Kenya. There is an effort by UN forces and the US State Department, they have a war crimes investigation department, to track him down.”
 
Because of the subject matter did you think there were things you definitely couldn't show?
 
“Yeah, there’s a couple of times. One particular sequence, the videotape that Joaquin Phoenix brings back and shows in the room that Paul sees, that is a recreation of an actual piece of footage, which in documentary appears quite a lot, where a group of Tutsi, including a woman with a child on her back, are macheted to death. It’s very banal in its horror. It’s a funny thing when the radio station talked about everyone must go to work – when you see this it’s almost like people hoeing in the field, the effort they put into it. At first I had planned to use the actual video footage in that sequence. But when I talked to the guy that had shot it, Nick Hughes, an independent cameraman, he said, ‘Look, clearly we can’t ask the permission of these people that died and were involved. Also, do you want to turn the film into a sort of glorified snuff movie?’ The more I thought about that, the more I saw that he was right. We would have been sitting now talking about this particular bit of footage, and in the  United States particularly it would be about you seeing someone actually killed. It also would have ensured that in the  US I’d have got an R rating.
 
“I took a decision early on that I was not going to try to recreate the physical brutality of that particular genocide, for several reasons. First of all I wanted the film to be an education tool. I wanted the film to be available to high school teenagers and students, and also not turn off adults who are not interested in seeing gore or a lot of violence. And the second thing was I felt there was no middle ground between what I did, which is use the psychological impact, the implication that the next thing that happened would be the laughter of people or whatever, and recreating what would almost be pornographic violence. The only similar scene I could envisage that would be close to what happened in  Rwanda would be the buffalo sacrifice in Apocalypse Now. I’m also a believer that letting the audience’s imagination work in some cases is as powerful as anything you can show on screen.”
 
Is it difficult to turn a real, living person into a fictional character?
 
“You know, when I did In the Name of the Father, I remember Jim Sheridan talking to the Daily Telegraph -- In the Name of the Father was quite controversial back then, and less so now, obviously, after Mr Blair apologised [to the Maguire and Conlon families] -- and Jim said to them as I was listening, ‘There is a greater truth than the truth in film in that what you do is distil the facts’. It’s like the distillation of wine into brandy almost; you take the facts and you compress them together to give an emotional experience, a flavour and a taste of what went on, for an audience. That, for me, becomes the challenge. I do feel a big obligation to history because, for better or worse, feature film has become the main source of in-depth information about big events. For instance, The Killing Fields is my point of reference for the Cambodian genocide. And even though I have read quite a lot about it, Missing would be the evocative point of reference for the Pinochet revolt in Chile. I think that Hotel Rwanda will become for many people in the west their point of reference for the Rwandan genocide. Therefore you have got to compress and invent or mould certain scenes in order to get that distillation across but you can’t manipulate the event or invent an event that distorts the historical record. That’s my opinion.
 
“In this case, the strangest thing is the bulk of this film, Paul says it’s 90%, I don’t know how you put a thing on it, is true. But events that we show, particularly in the hotel, are exactly how they went. That was the attraction to me. The events, as they say, were stranger than fiction. Roger going next door and finding that the neighbours are dead, the Hutu workers taking over the luxury suites, the whites leaving, the convoy leaving, even the family hiding in the bath, all of those were the way it happened. For me the things that I had to do for the film were more compilation characters. All the whites are basically compilation characters of various UN officers and journalists and Red Cross workers. Then I think the only big creation was that trip out to the warehouse and the dead bodies on the road. Paul did encounter that level of corpses on the road but it happened after he escaped from the hotel, when he went to drive south with Tatiana, to try and find her family. But I needed at that point to take the audience out into what we call the heart of darkness, the middle of the genocide, to see the systematic slaughter and the reality of this notion to wipe out the whole Tutsi population.”
 
Why do you think the UN forces decided not to intervene?
 
“There’s no real complexity to the west’s decision not to intervene. It was based on what happened in Somalia, and the Hutu extremist government, already knowing this and seeing how the west, particularly the United States, had withdrawn, set about murdering those 10 Belgian soldiers as the catalyst for the Belgians to withdraw. And the UN’s decision to withdraw was based on the political fall-out for the United States in Europe. They collectively were all saying we’re not going to intervene in Africa again and experience that same fall out that we did in Somalia. The difference being, I think, this was not a confrontation with radical Islam and really heavily armed groups of war lords in Somalia. The Hutu army itself was deeply divided and demoralised and the militia were armed with machetes. The UN force that was there, allied with the intervention force that came in to evacuate the whites, could easily have stopped it. That’s the shame and the legacy that those politicians involved have to carry.”
 
What are your memories of the  Rwanda genocide?
 
“I was shooting Some Mother’s Son in  Ireland. When you’re doing a film you kind of lose focus of everything else but I read about everything that was going on. I think in Britain the coverage was better, specifically because Mike Doyle of the BBC and his film crew stayed throughout at the Amahora stadium and were reporting about what was going on. But I don’t think many people caught on to the scope of it until that mass exodus of Hutu, who were fleeing across the border, happened. But after that, I guess five or six years later, I became deeply interested in doing something about Africa and about ordinary Africans, how they survived and the courage they showed in the face of these catastrophic wars and natural disasters, and read quite a bit then about the Rwandan genocide, before I encountered Paul’s story.”
 
This is one of three films on this subject [Hotel Rwanda, Sometimes in April, Shooting Dogs] appearing in the 60th anniversary year of the liberation Auschwitz. Do you know why this happening now?
 
“I don’t actually. There’s a weird synergy in movies. Like if I was making a film about sheepdogs in the hills of Donegal, I bet I would find two other movies that were being made at the same time. I don’t know what it is. It’s kind of like when you meet a traffic jam on a highway and you get to the point where it happened and there’s nothing there. But, at the same time, I think there is starting to be slightly more of an awareness of a need to confront the civil wars and the situations in  Africa. I hope that along with the growing South African film industry this will allow people to pay attention not just to central Africa, but also the  Congo. I was fascinated by the Liberian civil war and that was a fiction script I was trying to write when I came across Paul’s story. So there is a goldmine of dramatic stories to be told in Africa. The impediment to that was clearly that, for me, because I work out of Hollywood, there’s a belief in  Hollywood that there’s no financial gain to be made from stories about Africa unless it’s two zebras and an elephant. But I never work on that theory. When you have done the Gerry Conlon story and the Irish hunger strike, clearly you’re not dealing in the commercial field. You know?”
 
Will Hotel Rwanda be released in  Africa?
 
“We’re negotiating with a South African distribution company to distribute it in  South Africa. But the reality in  Africa today, there is a much more democratic distribution system and it is called the black market in DVD’s. I’m quite sure this film is going to end up from Johannesburg to Cairo. That’s obviously a big problem for the industry but in terms of this story reaching the source, it’s not.”
 
We mentioned that demonisation is the first stage of genocide. Given your own experiences in  Northern Ireland, twice interned as a supposed member of the IRA, is that something you’re sensitive too?
 
“Yeah. I recognised early on this ability by extremist politicians to manipulate sections of divided communities to tell one community or one tribal group or one religious group that the other group is going to steal their land, their livelihood, their culture or even kill them. That’s a tried and tested method of not only holding on to power but also stimulating violence. Obviously Adolf Hitler did that very effectively before the Second World War and it’s been pretty much used around the world. So yeah, I had an affinity for spotting just how the society was divided.”
 
What do you think of the trials that are going on?
 
“I agree with them. It’s just that I think the tribunals ended up being more to assuage the conscience of the west than to bring justice to the genocide years. If there have been forty trials that’s the most there have been. And there’s a kind of bureaucratic process that builds up and eventually ends in a log jam and enormous use of UN funds. I’m a big fan of the international court in The Hague, which has a much speedier system set up, but the United States is a big opponent of that now.”
 
Is there a danger that if fiction takes the place of true stories then history gets simplified?
 
“Yeah but I think there’s a balance between documentary footage and feature film. What feature film can do as opposed to documentary and news footage is bring an audience inside an event and give them empathy for the victims themselves and for the people. I think that Paul’s character is the eyes and ears of the audience. So you’re able to take western audiences inside an event that they have absolutely no comprehension of, and that’s a unique ability. Once they have become interested they can certainly see the scope of the genocide and the horror of it through documentary. We have established a fairly sophisticated website that documents the genocide in much more detail and also provides an outlet for people to do something and contribute to funds and mobilise to help  Rwanda now. So for us it’s an activist thing, and we have been trying to mobilise around Darfur and  Sudan. The website’s www.hotelrwanda.com.”

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