Sunday, January 9, 2011

Western Morality

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2005)

I have much affinity with commentators who wondered about the discrepancy between the huge outpouring of support for the Indian Ocean tsunami victims, and the relative lack of resources we make available for more endemic forms of deprivation. I saw Colin Powell on Meet The Press, ably handling the dumb questions about whether the United States responded quickly enough (neither Bush nor Martin deserved this sententious, hindsight-driven rap), and I was intrigued by the simplicity of his formulation: of course the United States would do what it had to do, he said, because this was a matter of people suffering. But I doubt there's a clear moral distinction between the lives lost or devastated in Indonesia or Sri Lanka, and the millions in Africa who die even more dreadfully or survive even more marginally. I think the support for the current crisis is wonderful, but it has its illustrative dark side in showing how our collective morality relies on easy identification. I think the tsunami constituted a narrative that played to Western dreams of upward mobility, family, property values and lush recreation; whereas Africa allows us no such point of entry. It is simply beyond comprehension; huge, terrible, deprived.

Hotel Rwanda

I’ve read some criticism of Terry George’s film Hotel Rwanda for its reliance on a single atypical protagonist, albeit that the story is based on fact. Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, a house manager at an upscale Rwandan hotel. At the start of the film we see him running round procuring fine cigars and alcohol for guests and instructing others on how to grease the wheels; he ingratiates himself with army chiefs and other power figures, figuring he’s building up personal capital for the future, a wise move in such a volatile country. When the 1994 genocide explodes, Cheadle throws the hotel open to hundreds of refugees, hopeful that this will be a short term haven until Western troops restore order. But as Western disregard becomes clear, he finds himself as the refugees’ only possibility of survival.

In the film’s most moving scene, Western soldiers escort European nationals onto the buses that will take them away, while the abandoned Rwandans look on. A further party of refugees arrives, led by white priests and nuns believing they can lead their charges to safety. Cheadle is breathtaking in his businesslike control of the situation, disabusing the white protectors of their illusions just as he’s discarded his own, separating the groups into the privileged whom he herds onto the bus, and the dispossessed; he’s grasped that for the Rwandans to have any hope of survival, they must first cast off the illusion of external intervention (would this be any different in the wake of George W. Bush’s new proclaimed commitment to “freedom”?).

When the buses drive away, there’s a sombre shot of the assembled Rwandans looking on in the rain. But to return to the common criticism, Cheadle stands in front of the others, and then an aide comes from the hotel to cover his head with an umbrella. The image stamps his leadership and authority, and while that’s valid in the context of the film, it also marks a convention that’s disappointing no matter how well executed, that our primary sympathies are localized to the immediate concerns and experiences of a few people, potentially diluting our sense of the broader issues.

Commercial Necessities

Still, I guess it’s a commercial necessity, and Hotel Rwanda probably negotiates it as well as any film. It’s disappointing that so much of the film depends on Cheadle using his wits to negotiate a series of narrow escapes, and when we’re told at the end that almost a million people were massacred, it only underlines the arbitrariness of our submission to the dynamic of a specific personal crisis. This problem seems particularly acute at the film’s ending, when two family members who were feared lost are discovered in a refugee camp. But I think George is sensitive to the fact that the uplift of this rediscovery constitutes just one of many stories, many of which ended far less happily, and his camera does not make the mistake of reducing surrounding refugees to mere extras. We identify with the immediate personal fulfillment, while remaining aware of (sad to say) its relative immateriality.

In this sense, if memory serves, Hotel Rwanda is far less objectionable than a film like Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, in which the film’s self-righteous nobleness of purpose is odious both on its own terms and, in particular, when refracted so melodramatically through an inappropriate focal point (in that case, a film supposedly about apartheid, choosing to spend most of its efforts on the personal travails of a white journalist).

In my summary above, I avoided using the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi,” but obviously these definitions are inherent to what took place. The Cheadle character is a Hutu; his wife and most of their neighbours are Tutsis. Historically, the Tutsis formed the Rwandan ruling class and the Hutus were subservient, and this structure was reinforced by the Belgian colonizers (the film suggests in one dialogue that the Belgians almost arbitrarily created the two divisions, based on their own notions of desirable physical characteristics, but that seems to be a slight overstatement). Hutu rule started in the 1960’s but with frequent ethnic conflict, and when the president was killed in a plane crash in 1994, the genocide erupted.

People’s Choice

Whatever the West’s measure of culpability for these events may be, it’s clear that its response in 1994 was craven and cowardly, and continues to undermine any proclamations of global citizenship or moral leadership in other areas. In Canada, of course, the main focus of this failure has been General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN peacekeeping force, broken by the disregard of his superiors and by his inability to intervene. He’s represented in the film by Nick Nolte (one of my favourite actors, but perhaps not best utilized here). Overall, the film is an effective enough indictment of the West’s role. (It also includes the pathetic US State Department news conference where a spokeswoman dances around the phrase “genocide.”)

Hotel Rwanda won the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto film festival, which places it in a questionable tradition of uplifting crowd-pleasers like Life Is Beautiful and Whale Music. I think the film is more rigorous than that though. It’s a humanist work of course, but aware of its own compromises as such. Director Terry George is an Irishman who was arrested in the 1970’s on suspicion of IRA-related activity; he wrote In the Name Of The Father and dealt with similar material in his directing debut Some Mother’s Son. These are credible political credentials that don’t seem to have softened too much as his career moved toward Hollywood.

Compared to an indigenous African film like Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade, the film has a limited sense of Africa – you don’t feel the air, the heat, the culture, the poverty. But in the circumstances, the film is probably as good as one could possibly have hoped for. As I’ve pointed out, its challenges to the audience are compromised, but I think they’re clear enough to sweep aside one notion – that writing the occasional cheque for disaster relief, even a big one, will absolve the Westerner’s moral obligation to the rest of the world.

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