The Courage to act
by Marie-France Dupagne
- In his second feature film, in competition at Berlin, the Irish Terry George tackles the issue of the general indifference of all countries regarding the Rwandan genocide through a real story
Besides being Jim Sheridan’s favourite script-writer (In the Name of the Father, The Boxer), the Irish Terry George, has also proved a talented director with Some Mother’s Son. In Hotel Rwanda, in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, he tackles the issue of the general indifference of all the other countries regarding the Rwandan genocide through the real story of Paul Rusesabagina.
How did you find out about this story?
I was interested in all the African wars and conflicts, but these are subjects Hollywood avoided when I was working on them. Then I received Paul’s story. I felt it said it all about conflicts, racism, etc, while being film material. For even if you do not consider the genocide raging outside the Mille Collines Hotel, there is still a thriller going on, and a beautiful romance. When I met Paul and his wife Tatiana, I saw how they supported each other as a team. This became the core of the movie, for even if you deal with a crucial political topic, it is also important to make something entertaining. This is how you manage to touch people and make them aware of such a serious issue as a genocide.
When did you start being interested in Africa?
Seing how wars keep raging there, and seing the way Western countries deal with this, I felt like writing a script on Liberia. When I discovered Paul’s story, I found there was yet another message to tell which was even stronger. In the midst of one of the worst catastrophies of the 20th Century, one man had the courage to stand up and act on his convictions while we all buried our heads in the sand. This is the kind of story I like telling in the simplest way. It is interesting to lead spectators to the heart of darkness not only to show the horror of it, but also to make them empathise with other human beings, and this particular thing cannot be achieved the same way in a documentary or a journalistic work.
What was the most difficult for you when you started with the film?
Gathering the money! That’s the strangest thing about this project : writing the script and shooting were actually the easiest stages. What was really difficult was finding money and convince distributors. In the beginning, I tried getting money from Hollywood, but it did not work. Eventually, my partner, Alex Ho, and I decided to do it another way, via independant cinema. We found money in South Africa, England, and Italy. Even then, two days into shooting we still did not have enough money...Alex and I payed for pre-production, which raised some anxiety. However, the intensity and the gravity of the subject allowed us to convince and gather staff and actors. They were all really into it, and we had some great time in Johannesburg.
Still, you did choose American actors.
There are many reasons to this. One must be realistic, considering the box-office ; you have to give your film chances to be seen, that is, public appeal. For me, making cinema means communicating, and communicating implies you want a public as wide as possible. When I chose Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo, I felt this decision preserved the integrity of my project. Don really disappears behind his character, he becomes Paul. Same for Sophie : if you have seen her in Dirty Pretty Things, you will hardly recognize her in Hotel Rwanda. And that’s what I needed. As for Joaquin Phoenix, he accepted the role out of friendship, without asking for a salary. Same with Jean Reno, for that matter. The African casting should not be overlooked though, they were fantastic, as were the Rwandan children.
Paul Rusesabagna was approached by other directors, how did you convince him ?
I showed him In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, and Some Mother’s Son to make him understand the nature of my films. Paul is very intelligent. He knew his story would reach more people if it was turned into a ficture feature. For Hotel Rwanda also allows us to point at what is going on right now in Darfour and Congo.
Terry George has been interviewed at the Berlin Film Festival