For Terry George, the pivotal moment in his quest to make the film "Hotel Rwanda" came when he visited a memorial to dead Tutsis in Murambi. He had traveled to Rwanda with Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager whose heroic story of harboring refugees during the 1994 genocide became the subject of the film. In Murambi, Rusesabagina showed him the technical school where 40,000 Tutsis were lured under the guise of protection--and then slaughtered. Many of the corpses, laid out on platforms as a grim memorial, were bleached white by the lime used to preserve them. "The very color that would have saved their lives, they became in death," says George, 52. "At that moment the film went from being a passion to an obligation."
With the Dec. 22 release of "Hotel Rwanda," George triumphantly fulfills that obligation. Already the film has generated considerable buzz, earning three Golden Globe nominations--including ones for best drama and best actor (Don Cheadle). But will moviegoers really choose to see George's harrowing account of Rwanda's holocaust over lighter holiday fare like "The Aviator"? Some think so. "Here you have, for the first time on the screen, a really appealing African heroic figure," says Alison Des Forges, a senior adviser on Africa for Human Rights Watch. "I also think there is an enormously deep residue of genocide guilt on the part of many people and they will want to see it because of that."
That is certainly George's hope. The Belfast-born director addressed the theme of a divided society in his earlier films about Northern Ireland ("In the Name of the Father" and "Some Mother's Son"), but had long wanted to explore the subject in Africa, a place he felt the movie industry shunned. When his agent sent him a script by Keir Pearson based on Rusesabagina's experience, George knew he had found his Africa story. "It fit perfectly with what I was looking to say about the West's active avoidance of Africa and how human life [there] is clearly not considered to be of the same value as human life in the Western world," he says. "And it had this phenomenal personal story."
The film lays out how Rusesabagina, a Hutu who managed the luxury Mille Collines hotel in Kigali, used his savvy and connections to shelter Tutsis and moderate Hutus fleeing rampaging Hutu militias. Ten years on, "Hotel Rwanda" is the first feature film about the slaughter, which was so fast--nearly 1 million were killed in 100 days--and so remote that few outside the region have seen images of it. The movie is, in the tradition of films like "The Killing Fields" and "Schindler's List," an attempt on George's part to open the world's eyes to the genocide and to express long-overdue solidarity with Rwandans. At every screening, George says, Rwandans showed up: "Twice we had hotel survivors stand up and give testimony that that's the way it was."
While he was working on the script, George brought Rusesabagina from Belgium to George's summer house in New York, where they spent five days going over every detail. "I had been trying to tell the story ever since it happened," says Rusesabagina. "At long last I had someone who would sit down and listen to me. Coming from Northern Ireland, where there are two different societies, helped him to understand what was going on in our world."
To be sure, George knows something about strife. He grew up Roman Catholic in a Protestant neighborhood in Belfast, one of five children. The Troubles broke out when he was a teenager, and he started hanging out with members of the junior wing of the IRA. He was picked up in a police raid and spent three months in prison camps. By the time he got out, he says, he had "become fairly radicalized and was associating with people in Sinn Fein."
He moved to England, where he worked in construction and as a bartender. One night in a pub he met a drunken Irishman named Gerry Conlon; soon after, George read that Conlon had been arrested for the Guildford bombing, the 1974 IRA attack on a British pub that killed four. "I knew there was no way [Conlon] had done this," he says. (The story of his wrongful conviction and imprisonment was the subject of George's first screenplay, "In the Name of the Father.") He got more involved with Sinn Fein. Then, one night in June of 1975, George was driving an IRA honcho and a woman carrying guns --across Belfast. They were stopped by a British Army patrol and arrested. George was sentenced to six years at Long Kesh prison; he served three.
By the time he got out in 1978, George had had enough of Republican tactics. "People always say the end justifies the means," George says. "But what happened in Northern Ireland--and what happens almost everywhere--is that the means used so corrupt the end that it's no longer worth achieving. Even in a place where the armed struggle was clearly legitimate, like South Africa, the legacy that armed struggle has left behind has made it really difficult for that society to evolve."
George married Rita Higgins, a woman he met in a Dublin bar who fell in love with "his humility and compassion for injustice," she recalls, 26 years later. (His humility is still apparent; George blushes when he talks about the three houses--Westchester and Long Island, in New York, and Ireland--he and Rita share with their two children, Oorlagh, 24, and Seamus, 17. And Oorlagh says her parents so despise wastefulness that they deliberately buy the food in the grocery store "that's about to go past the sell-by date.")
After George caught "a Protestant hit squad" breaking into their Belfast house, the family moved to New York, where he got a job as a magazine fact checker and freelance music reviewer. He spent his evenings writing a play called "The Tunnel," based on an actual escape he'd witnessed at Long Kesh. He took it to the Irish Arts Center in New York, where Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot," "In America") was the artistic director. Sheridan agreed to produce it, and the two struck up a friendship that has led to their collaboration on many projects, including "In the Name of the Father."
George has never shied from the politically uncomfortable, and he doesn't seem likely to with his next project, either: a screenplay he is writing with Sheridan about three dynasties of political families in America. For now, he is busy trying to parlay the buzz over "Hotel Rwanda" into action. "I don't want to be naive," he says, "but [I hope the film] will energize some politicians and people to think more comprehensively about peacemaking--in Darfur, Uganda. That's the central debate of our time: how can democracies band together to stop genocide?" He may not have the answer, but at least he is forcing us to face the question.