Thursday, January 06, 2005

Dramatizing Genocide

The new movie Hotel Rwanda seems to have been getting more attention in the media lately than the actual genocide on which it was based did in 1994. I can't comment on the quality of the film, because it doesn't come out in Toronto until this weekend, although it does seem to be getting good reviews. Although the natural instinct is to think that anything that brings attention to events such as this is a good thing, something has been bothering me. Reading an article on CNN's website today comparing Paul Rusesabagina to Oscar Schindler made me realise what that is. Rusesabagina was the owner of the Hotel Milles Collines. During the time of the genocide, he was responsible for protecting over a thousand people from the genocidaires. Both he and Oscar Schindler -- who helped save thousands from death at the hands of the Nazis -- deserve to be honoured for acting righteously when so few others would. Unfortunately, these films only serve to further the public's general ignorance about these events. Why? Because the message they give is hope. No matter how bad things get, there are always the few who will stand up against evil. But if you are going to take away one lesson from these two events, that should not be it.

People are woefully misinformed about history. As topics go, the Nazis and World War Two get a disproportionately large amount of coverage in popular history. But nonetheless, people are still largely unaware of the facts of the Holocaust. Most people are still willing to believe the lie that the average German had no idea what was happening to the Jews during the Holocaust. Really? Where did they think all their neighbours went? Regular German citizens were responsible for the attrocities of the Holocaust. We need to come to terms with this fact. In teaching people about the Rwandan genocide, the challenges are even greater because most people know nothing about Africa. Because the average Westerner sees Africa as a hopeless, lost continent, we cannot fathom that Rwandans had regular lives with jobs and families, and therefore it is hard to grasp the significance of what happened over those 100 days.

Primo Levi used to say that in speaking to young people about his experiences during the Holocaust, they often could not understand why more people just did not escape. Movies that tell the story of one good man who saved the lives of hundreds or thousands of people feed into this mentality. Because films are often the only information that many people will get about these tragedies, they have a false understanding of the history. You can't learn history at the movies, it is not possible (read a book). Narrative film can do a good job of humanizing an event, making it seem more real. But when you are ignorant about the facts of that event, watching a movie about it gives you only a very small piece of the puzzle. Often that is worse than not knowing anything at all. For example, I shudder to think what message people took from the abysmal piece of filth that was 'Life is Beautiful'. I hesitate to compare Schindler's List or Hotel Rwanda to a movie that turned Nazi concentation camps into a fairy tale, but in focusing on a message of hope above all else they fail the victims.

Millions of people died in the last century to genocides throughout the world. More are dying right now. We have not yet come to terms with the fact that it was ordinary people who were responsible for this. Society as a whole is not yet ready for a message of hope from other people's misery, we do not deserve it. First we must learn our own complicity. We must learn to act to prevent acts like this from occuring. Because the messages of hope that we have learned so far are "I hope that someone else is going to do something about this" or "I hope that this somehow stops".

I know that Steven Speilberg and Terry George have the best of intentions. They want to bring attention to these events of which so many are uninformed. But in trying to find the few stories that show human goodness in the midst of all of the despair, they mask the true horror of the situation.

No comments: