This joint review of 1947: Earth and Hotel Rwanda originally appeared on Geek of All Trades. Instead of creating a new entry for Earth, I have reproduced it here.
Here in the United States, it has been 140 years since the country was last torn by civil war. Our civil war cost over half a million lives, tore families apart, and left cities in ruins, but no one alive today remembers it first-hand.
In other parts of the world, of course, the wounds of civil war are fresher, and the demons that can turn a nation against itself reside closer to the surface of memory. These conflicts kill millions and displace millions more, and the scale of their destruction is difficult for me, as a modern American, to grasp. At the points where vast political violence touches individual lives, though, compelling stories are created, and in the hands of careful storytellers the experience of civil war can become horribly, movingly accessible. Two films I saw recently each brought into sharp focus the way that the eruption of bloodshed can tear apart ordinary, comfortable lives.
Deepa Mehta’s Earth, set in 1947, explores the spasm of violence that accompanied the withdrawal of the British Raj and the partitioning of the subcontinent into the independent nations of India and Pakistan, in which a million people were killed and millions more displaced. Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of Paul Rusesebagina, a Kigali hotel manager who saved the lives of almost 1300 people during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Hotel Rwanda is an inspiring tale of personal strength and character in the face of unutterable atrocity, while Earth focuses on human weakness and betrayal, and in the end is anything but uplifting. Thus the two films take rather different approaches, though there are some underlying parallels in the subject matter.
Earth is told largely through the eyes of a little girl, Lenny, growing up in Lahore in a wealthy, anglicized family. Lenny’s peaceful childhood is sheltered by a diverse group of friendly adults who look after her – her Parsee parents, her Hindu nanny Shanta (the ever-stunning Nandita Das), and Shanta’s friends from the neighborhood, including two Muslims who compete for Shanta’s affections: Hassan the massage-wala (Rahul Khanna) and Dil Navaz the ice candy-wala (Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan). When the announcement comes that the British are finally withdrawing – and dividing the subcontinent into predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan, with Lahore falling in the latter – tensions flare in Lenny’s world. First, the cheerful chatter of Shanta’s friends is disrupted by heated political debate. Then the violence of partition touches the circle directly, when Dil Navaz’s sisters are killed in a barbaric massacre, and firefights break out in the streets of Lahore. The young Lenny never fully grasps the depth of what she is seeing or of the changes it works on the people she loves and trusts, and her innocence is the engine that drives the film’s final tragedy.
Hotel Rwanda is not told through the eyes of a child. But as the killings begin in Kigali, Paul Rusesebagina’s (Don Cheadle) initial denial is certainly naïve. Once he can no longer ignore the situation – when a burly Hutu police officer points a gun at Rusesebagina’s Tutsi wife’s head – he directs all of his resourcefulness toward protecting those around him. A manager of a European-owned, four-star hotel, Rusesebagina has a keen sense of style, an unflappable manner, and a host of highly placed contacts to rely upon. He enlists the assistance of a thinly-staffed U.N. guard unit and the hotel’s owner in Belgium, whom Rusesebagina convinces by phone to protect the hotel for the sake of the company’s international reputation. All told, Rusesabagina shelters 1268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in his hotel.
These two moving, startling films formed a relationship in my mind. Both films address the deep damage that colonialism can wreak even long after the foreign overlords are gone. In the historical contexts of both films, the colonial forces for their own gain had stoked cultural and ethnic divisions between communities that had coexisted more or less peacefully for centuries - Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, and Muslims and Hindus in the subcontinent. And both films portray the violence between the respective groups occurring in the vacuum left behind when the white folks from the West who created the tinderbox lit the fuse and then abruptly withdrew.
Both films also present strong, charismatic characters brought face to face with violence and bloodshed, but the reaction of these characters is starkly different. Hotel Rwanda’s Paul Rusesebagina rises above the horror, becoming a hero and a protector, an inspiration. But before Rusesebagina’s epiphany, he tries to convince himself and his family that it will all blow over, and the best thing to do is to avoid getting involved, to remain neutral. This is also the position of Lenny’s anglicized, Parsee father in Earth, who insists that the Parsees’ best chance for survival is to remain neutral, “like Switzerland,” and let the Hindus and the Muslims work out their problems on their own. In the end, though, neither Rusesebagina’s nor Lenny’s house can remain above the fray.
In contrast to Rusesebagina’s apotheosis, Earth’s Dil Navaz descends painfully and consciously into hell as his basest impulses get the better of him. In one powerful scene, Dil Navaz begs Shanta to marry him, insisting that his love for her is the only thing that can save him from becoming a vicious animal. When Shanta refuses him and chooses his rival the massage-wala, Dil Navaz’s political rage merges with his very personal anguish, with horrifying results.
Both Earth and Hotel Rwanda are brilliant pieces of film-making. Hotel Rwanda was gripping in its portrayal of the violence of the massacres, which was chilling without being gratuitously gory. And it was just brilliantly acted; both Cheadle as Rusesebagina and Sophie Okonedo as Rusesebagina’s wife Tatiana earned Oscar nominations, and at least Cheadle should probably have won. His shining moment, when Rusesebagina’s dignified poise finally cracks under the strain of the horrors around him, is one of the best performances I have ever seen, anywhere. Earth, too, is well-acted. Nandita Das is evidently more comfortable in Hindi than in English, giving a more grounded performance than she did in Fire, where she often seemed in a hurry to get her lines over with. And Aamir Khan, best known as a masterful and charming Bollywood leading man, nevertheless brings gravitas and fire to Dil Navaz’s descent. But Earth’s cinematic strength resides most squarely in Deepa Mehta’s deft use of color and shadow to create a palpable mood. Like Fire, Earth is shot in warm tones of deeply shadowed red and orange, so that the scenes reflect and amplify the simmering emotions of Mehta’s characters.
Finally, though, these are not just two good movies, but also two good opportunities to reflect on the forces that set neighbors against one another. It may be naïve, but I cannot help hoping that individuals and societies both can begin to learn the lessons of the Rwandan genocide, the partition of the subcontinent, and countless other examples of internecine violence. As I turn back to the news from Darfur, however, it occurs to me that more than hope is needed.