Friday, January 14, 2005

Limits of Iconography

Bri and I went to see HOTEL RWANDA a little over a week ago. (Spoiler spoiler spoiler--not that you can do tremendous spoilers for a film that everyone already knows is about genocide and yet has a protagonist, but still, I do discuss a few details.) In a lot of ways it was an excellent movie, and in a lot of ways it was not a very good one. The acting is extremely good--Don Cheadle and Sophie Okenodo are deeply impressive, and even the people in the bit parts have a great deal of impressive stuff going on. I think the script is a bit subpar, but it does skilfully avoid forcing things on you by means of dialogue. And what I want to talk about is something I think I mentioned when I was talking about THREE KINGS, which is the difficulty that came with trying to watch it As A Movie.

The truth is that if HOTEL RWANDA had been about something I see movies about all the time, like, you know, the threat of nuclear devastation in the United States of America or somesuch, I wouldn't dare, as an artist, to call it an excellent movie. It is, as Emily pointed out, deeply emotionally manipulative, the score is horrible, it's part of a fairly new and very annoying genre--the "one-man-does-all-he-can-in-the-face-of-horrific-adversity, look-at-him" genre--and, while this last is a criticism Bri strongly didn't agree with, I found it remarkably unbloody for a film that was about a really, really horrifically and rapidly bloody event, in a way that almost felt like it was trying to spare its international, mainstream audiences. There's a lot of impressive things about it in terms of artistry, as I mentioned above, and in terms of marketing--without any real star power (I'm sorry, Don Cheadle, because I do love you, but you totally don't count) and about a really horrific topic, it managed to get an incredibly mainstream distributor, and on the Saturday night when I saw it, the AMC River East stadium-seating theater was totally packed. And as Emily said, for *any* movie with a black cast not aimed at young people and with no white star drawing it out (Nick Nolte doesn't count either--Joaquin Phoenix might have, but I honestly didn't know he was in the movie until I saw it) that's pretty impressive, never mind for a movie about genocide. But the truth is I didn't think about *any* of that while I was watching it, except that I noticed there weren't as many horrific images as I felt there ought to be. (A movie where they wouldn't be gratuitous, rare enough in this country.)

What I was thinking about was holy-shit-that-actually-happened. I don't think I flatter myself in saying I know more about the Rwandan genocide than the average American, but that's only because I took one course about genocide my fourth year of college, and because I read (and just reread, in the last two days) Philip Gourevitch's astounding book WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES. (Which you should read, right now--it's disturbing, but it's supposed to be, it's incredibly well-written and completely accessible, and it teaches you more about the genocide and the recent political history of central Africa than an American ever gets the opportunity to know.) Within my circles of friends, though not within my family, I am the harshest and nastiest critic I know. (When Alex and Emily, my roommates, see a movie or theater, they have told me that the rule of thumb is, "It's not as bad as Gemma thinks it is, and it's not as good as Megan thinks it is.") I feel very strongly that form and content are inextricable, which is to say that the artistry of a movie should matter as much as the ideas of what the movie is about, be bound up with them and influenced by them. Which happened in THREE KINGS, but didn't happen in HOTEL RWANDA, and yet my reactions to both movies were comparably, well, formless.

It would be imprecise to say that either HOTEL RWANDA or THREE KINGS had A Message. Like I said in the first "Activists in America" post, I used to be abjectly anti-message. Having shifted a couple of times over the years, I think I'm now against having only one message. A single message I think is generally light enough for a pigeon to carry. For more messages than that, you're allowed to use art. THREE KINGS, like I said, had a slight cop-out/solution-y ending, but that didn't mean it had one message or one way things were supposed to be; it wasn't like the characters didn't make their own beds. HOTEL RWANDA . . . the trouble is, I think, that as a movie it had to carry a huge burden. Most Americans know just this side of bubkas about the 1994 genocide and its aftermath(s); for most people, all they will learn about Rwanda will come from this movie. Which on one level is an unfair burden to place on a movie. It is an intimate (its intimacy is extremely well-done) and limited piece of art, limited as every single piece of art in the universe is limited, and it's not history and it's not journalism and it's not a primary source. To expect that of it would be absurd. And yet, a movie made for wide release in America that's about Rwanda has the responsibility to *know* that about itself when it gets started, to understand that this is what most Americans will picture when they picture Rwanda. That Don Cheadle, an American actor, will become the symbol of the country. (To be fair, though, as soon as Cheadle heard he could possibly ever in the universe be offered the part--originally the studio wanted Will Smith, which I think is hilarious--he set out to meet Paul Rusesabagina, the man he was playing, and Rusesabagina was on the set every day of shooting and therefore must've had some influence over the script.) So what's the solution there? I'm not really clear. One of the most enlightening things I understood from WE WISH TO INFORM YOU . . ., however obvious this sounds, is that genocide isn't just over when it's over. One hundred-day period was The Genocide, but it ended because of a military conflict that was going on surrounding the racial conflict (Hutu v. Tutsi) that was the cause and center of the genocide, at refugee camps in Zaire and Uganda the genocidaires, who were all Hutu, dominated the social world and often manipulated the aid workers who knew nothing of the conflict, which escalated into further killings--The Genocide stopped, but it had resonant aftereffects. Gourevitch writes about the two years immediately following; I don't have a clue what's going on now either. So what can an artist who wants to make a movie, or a play, or whatever, about something no one has paid attention to do? My friend, for example, is doing a solo performance piece about the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, about which I, and most Americans, know even less than I/we do about Rwanda. And all due respect to her--and there is a *ton* of respect due--her play can't take on the responsibility for being Sierra Leone to Americans. There needs to be specificity to storytelling, and we need to be able not to see that specificity as an error. An attempt at universality, an attempt at being The One Thing, will fail and offend the people who are part of that one thing.

But I can't really say the solution is just Make More Art About Rwanda. (Sorry, there is an excessive use of capital letters in this post.) Or maybe I can--it's not like I haven't seen enough "art" about the possibility of nuclear devastation in the United States. But what does that do for a movie like HOTEL RWANDA in the meantime? Any thoughts?


At 12:49 PM, Blogger Connor said...

I agree that the solution isn't *simply* to make more art, but then it isn't to make less either.
Ultimately, I think it's a broader question of:
1) how we are educating people, and
2) how sufficient we allow people to think their education is.
It's the whole "American Indians warrant 2 pages in the Social Studies textbook" problem.

It's obviously impossible for everyone to be knowledgable about all people and places, but I think the comment is justified that we're excessively American and western-centric. Rwanda was a big enough deal that American's could have known a whole lot more with an effort less extensive than a curricular overhaul.

Unfortunately, that's a problem for politics and education, so "what's an artist to do" is left hanging.

You've answered it, or at least provided an answer that falls within my comfort zone, personally. And that is your statement that an artists acknowledges and reacts to both limitations and over/underexposure. "This is only the tip of the iceberg" is, I think, a universal enough sentiment that a talented artist can communicate it any number of ways.

I know that what I'm saying is a little discouraging overall, at least for "let's get out and change the world" sentiments. I'm basically saying, "well, we've got our backs covered and that's all we can effectively *do.*"


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