On a cold winter day in 2004, I went to the movies. Well, it could have been a cold day in Fall, or even a cold day in Spring, I don’t quite remember. You see, I grew up in Upstate New York, where snow often interferes both with Halloween and Mother’s Day plans. But while the season escapes me, I can still feel the chill in the air, as I sat bundled in my coat, staring at a blank screen long after the film had concluded and the credits rolled. It was the first time I can recall being so shaken by the content of a film, that the thought of getting up from my seat felt a bit like standing up for the first time after riding an upside down roller coaster. That film was Hotel Rwanda.
As a 16 year old, preparing for college, I was horrified not only by the film’s portrayal of the Rwandan genocide - an ethnic cleansing that left nearly a million people dead between the months of April and July in 1994 - but also with how the film positioned American (and other Western) media and governments as apathetic to the plight of the Rwandan people. The sentiment is hauntingly illustrated by an exchange between the film’s protagonist, Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), the manager of the Hôtel des Mille Colline who allows hundreds of refugees to shelter within the hotel during the siege, and foreign journalist, Jack Daglish (played Joaquin Phoenix), who has been assigned to cover the genocide.
After capturing graphic footage of people being murdered with machetes, Jack Daglish's character hides himself in a bottle of liquor at the hotel bar... Later that night, he is approached by Paul Rusesabagina who thanks Daglish for capturing such horrific imagery.
"I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance - that people might intervene."
"Yeah, and if no one intervenes? Is it still a good thing to show?"
"How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?"
"I think if people see this footage they'll say, 'oh my God that's horrible,' and then go on eating their dinners..."
I was 6 years old in April of 1994, my sister turned 4 that month and got an American girl doll for her birthday. This notion that by some accident of fate, I had spent those months playing with my sister - safe, happy, out of harm's way, while children who were members of the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda were being specifically targeted for “extermination” was unfathomable to me. As was the fact that until seeing the film Hotel Rwanda I had never even heard of the Rwandan genocide. As a family who religiously watched ABC’s World News Tonight with Charlie Gibson, I’m sure that, like so many Americans, we were exactly the people to which Jack was referring.
Shamed by this reality, I decided, on the car ride home from the theater that night in 2004, that the footage that I had just seen - while a Hollywood re-telling of actual events - was cause for intervention of some kind. On the precipice of adulthood - I couldn’t just go on eating my proverbial dinner. So, I decided that when I got to college, I wanted to study abroad in Rwanda and learn more about genocide and how I might contribute to a more just and peaceful world. Looking back on it now, I’m envious of this youthful naivete full of heartfelt ambitions that were unencumbered by the complexities of the world.
To make a long story short, I did not study abroad in Rwanda. But, I did go to Tanzania, and as a part of study abroad program I observed part of the UN Rwandan Tribunal for War Crimes in Arusha, Tanzania, where they tried some of the real-life perpetrators of the Rwanda Genocide. I later met Paul Rusesabagina when he came to the University at Buffalo to give a talk. I told him how the portrayal of his story in the film Hotel Rwanda had inspired me to learn more about African history and politics. I went on to get a Masters at Harvard, where I developed a program that brought kids from Boston public schools to campus to learn about Africa and to meet with visiting authors and diplomats. I worked at the U.S. Embassy in Swaziland (eSwatini) in the Public Diplomacy section, administering grants for organizations that support orphans and vulnerable children. I now develop study abroad programs with the hope that giving other students the opportunity that I had to be immersed in another culture may compound towards that more peaceful world I envisioned as a 16 year old.
All because on a cold night in Upstate New York, I went to the movies.
I’m not a filmmaker. But I am an educator. And my own experience is evidence of the power that films have to alter the trajectory of one’s life. And while not every film recounts an important period in global history, or is a major blockbuster seen by hundreds of thousands of people, every film - whether its a drama, documentary, comedy, or animation - has the potential to transport the viewer to a place they’ve never been, to see the world (quite literally) through a different lens.
So, if and when the daily grind of making films, has got you down - and I recognize this may seem a bit heavy handed coming from a non-filmmaker, remember the privilege (and responsibility) that you have as a creator to not only shape the story you are trying to tell, but its potential to shape other people’s stories, too.
On this rainy Friday afternoon in Upstate, NY - where the temperature is again totally unindicative of what season of the year it may be - I say, thanks for keeping us film consumers imagining, thinking, and growing in our understanding of the world.
Keep the faith.
FILMS THAT SHAPE US is a FilmQuill series focused on the many important and powerful films that change our understanding of the world and alter our life's direction. This series is open to contributions from readers - if a film has had an impact on your life and you want to write about it, please CLICK HERE to submit a topic proposal and a FilmQuill editor will be in contact shortly.