We don't always stay on top of the latest films, but sometimes we go out and catch one in the theatres when it's open-captioned or has rear-window captioning. Usually we try to get films as they come out on DVD. Again, it depends on our schedule.
Tonight we watched a movie that came out this week, "Hotel Rwanda." I know the Academy wanted to embrace "Million Dollar Baby", and Clint Eastwood has made some good movies ("Mystic River" and "Unforgiven" among them), and Hilary Swank is a very good actress, and deserved her nomination. But I think "Hotel Rwanda" should have gotten far more acknowledgement than it did, and I certainly hope people watch this movie, and then ask themselves (and others) some hard questions.
In case you haven't seen the movie, here's a brief synopsis (and then, go out and rent it!!!): As manager of the luxury hotel Mille Collines in the Rwandan capitol of Kigali, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) knew how to take care of hotel guests and visitors, from Rwandan bigshots to European travelers. In April, 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed when their plane was shot down. The assassination escalated ethnic conflicts between the Hutu and the Tutsi, the two peoples of Rwanda, leading to the genocide of the Tutsis at the hands of Hutus. "Hotel Rwanda" narrates how the Rwandan genocide affects Rusesabagina, the Mille Collines, and Rusesabagina's response to events. He was ultimately responsible for helping over 1,000 people survive the horror.
No, it's not the most pleasant movie, and it's one of the few films that left me wanting to just disengage for a while. It's very rare that I will react that way to a movie. Even when I watch a horror film, or a heavy drama, or a generally intense movie, most of the time I'm able to move on-- maybe a second film, or bedtime, or taking care of little chores, or whatever. Once in a great while, I will see a movie (or TV program) that leaves me stunned and in need of time to regroup. I watched a couple episodes of "The Simpsons" to remove myself temporarily. But afterwards, I found myself still thinking about what I had watched.
Part of what I ruminated on was how people could do this to each other. How can you suddenly just decide to go out your front door, walk down the street, and kill your neighbors? How could a person casually kill women, children, and babies that you don't even know? How can you justify torturing, raping, and murdering your fellow countrymen?
The rationale in Rwanda is the same rationale that, in one form or another, has been used as a justification for murder throughout centuries of human history. They're different from us. The origins of the current Tutsi-Hutu schism date from the era of European colonialism and imperialism in Africa during the 19th century. As a historian, I often tried to explain to my students when I assisted in World Civilization classes that much of the tragic landscape that passes for the continent of Africa stems from European arrogance and interference in local politics, traditions, and social norms. Most nations in Africa had their present day boundaries initially determined by the extent of European reach within the region, disregarding social, ethnic, religious, and historic borders that already existed. Nigeria is a great example of this. The northern half of Nigeria has a much different geography from the southern half. The northern half shares more physical characteristics with the regions to the north; the deserts, the plateaus, and the highlands. It also was the southern region of the vast reach of Islam, and many people in this part of Nigeria are Muslim. The southern half has lowlands, is more tropical and lush, and was exploited by Europeans who sought gold and slaves, which is why the western coastal region of Africa carries the historical appellations of the "Gold Coast", the "Slave Coast", and the "Ivory Coast". Along with European hegemony came Christianity and Euro-Christian animosity towards Islam. Pile this on top of already existing differences such as ethnicity, and you've got yourself a recipe for a mess. The Hausa in the north, and the Yoruba in the south are the major groups, but in the eastern portion you had the Igbos, who tried to secede and set up their own nation, Biafra. The impetus for this move was the slaughter of 30,000 Igbos in the northern states.
While I understand Rwanda is one of the few places that hewed to its historical borders, you still have conflict between different groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Belgians (of Belgian Congo fame) came in and determined the Tutsis to be racially superior based on the now discredited Hamitic theory, referred to in academia as the "Hamitic Myth." This set the stage for an ingrained sense of injustice (deserved or not) among the Hutus.
European racism of this kind rooted itself deeply all over Africa. When my sister worked in Kenya a few years back, she told us how the locals often still deferred to whites and to lighter-skinned Kenyans, even though Kenya has been independent since 1963. The reverse is true-- In history classes that I've taken or taught in the last twenty years, there's always a greater emphasis on the Mediterranean Basin nations and peoples such as Egypt, and very little about the rest of the continent. I was fortunate enough to take an African history course with Joe Kinner while I was at Gallaudet. One of the books we read in class was Chinua Achebe's _Things Fall Apart_, which is a great literary introduction to the chaos the Europeans instituted in Africa (and in this particular book's case, Nigeria). I highly recommend it if you haven't yet read it.
Racism was at work again when the tragedy of Rwanda occurred in 1994. Nations that had no problem sending troops to the Balkans, newspapers that had no difficulty running out of experts, witnesses, and victims to interview regarding the Croats and Serbs, and a United Nations that had no barriers whatsoever to sending a contingent to a war-torn, genocidal region-- all of these different interests suddenly had far more important things to do during the 100 days that a million Rwandans died.
Unfortunately I must count myself as one of these indifferent people during this time. I was still in college, on the brink of finally earning my bachelor's degree when all this took place. Granted, I focused on my studies and not as outspokenly political in my activities as I am now. But I did read the Washington Post
and I kept myself informed. Yet I didn't write any letters, phone anyone, or in any way lift my finger to say anything about what was happening. I remember reading about this in the paper at the time, and feeling sad that another mess in Africa was taking place. Yet now that I've seen the movie, it hit me just how horrific the massacre was, and how it wasn't just "another coup" or flare-up of violence. It was an example of coordinated violence that extended to the highest branches of government. One line from the movie exemplifies my probable reaction at the time, and the reaction of a lot of people everywhere to events of this type. A cameraman in the movie, played by Joaquin Phoenix, commented on the carnage he taped: "If people see this footage, they will go, 'Oh God, that's horrible,' and go back to eating their dinner."
I've studied the Holocaust extensively; I've taken courses, read tens of dozens of books, and for a brief time, I worked at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I've often wondered what I would have done had I lived back then. As a person, would I have resisted? Would I have helped surrepitiously? On the other hand, would I have silently disagreed, but stood quietly by even though inside I'd be horrified? As a deaf person, I would definitely have been at risk for sterilization. As an individual of (remotely) Jewish descent, would I have been ostracized (according to the racial and genealogical precepts of the Nazis, I would have been safe from personal injury, but I would not be acceptable as a full "Aryan," and I most certainly would have been watched closely, perhaps denied opportunities)?
I don't know what I would have done back then, but I didn't do anything in 1994. Paul Rusesabagina certainly did something. At his own personal risk, he sheltered not only his own family (he was Hutu; his wife and by extension his children were Tutsi) but neighbors, hotel guests, and other refugees; some 1,200 people altogether. For many years, when asked if I had a "hero" in games, quizzes, and just in general conversation, I couldn't come up with anyone. I was too jaded, too cynical, a child of an era of mediocre politicians and flawed humans. Yet I can now safely say Paul Rusesabagina is my hero.
When I worked at USHMM, there were a few days when I'd arrive at work (my day started before the museum opened to the public) and there'd be demonstrators outside, loudly proclaiming through signs and their own voices that the Holocaust never happened, that it was all made up. It always pissed me off. I spent my days in the Oral History division, analyzing and summarizing the personal testimonies of survivors. How could anyone fake the terror, the horror, the evil these people went through?
But at the same time, it's always bothered me that our global society has such a fixation with the events of the 1930s and 40s. It bothers me that a good number of Jews, from Israeli politicians to museum directors to academics down to the average man insists that what happened to them was unique, that only the Jews truly understand the evils of genocide, and use the Holocaust as a catch-all defense any time anything happens that is remotely anti-Semitic.
Yes, six million died. Yes, the Jews have suffered persecution for centuries, in various nations on every continent. Yes, genocide occurred on a scale previously unreached. But it is not the first example of genocide in recorded history, nor is it the last.
Just in the 20th Century alone, 1915 saw the Armenian genocide, which predated Kristallnacht and the concentration camps by a good twenty years at minimum. Since 1945, we've had acts of genocide in Cambodia, where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge systematically murdered an estimated 1.7 million people-- about 1/5 the Cambodian population; in the Balkans, where the three-sided war between Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia resulted in the rape, torture, and murder of hundreds of thousands of people; in Rwanda, where approximately a million people were slaughtered; and unfortunately, it is all happening again in Sudan.
In the wake of World War II, the leaders and peoples of the world said, "Never again." Yet it has happened again. And again. And again. If people really want to prevent it from happening again, they could take some of the time and energy spent talking about and remembering the Holocaust and applying it to the far broader reaches of genocide, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or nationality. This does not mean the Holocaust should be forgotten, but so far it seems like its lessons have gone unheeded.
We need to start by taking action, not just talking, so that the next time we say "never again," it will truly have meaning behind the words, not just a hollow reminder of genocide past, present, and future. If we can do that, we will never have to say "never again" again.