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Message in a Movie
by Mary Nyiri

Documentaries address conflicts and controversies around the world but often do not reach audiences because of lack of money for distribution, politics, subject matter or just calling the film a documentary. If you disguise a true (or almost true) story like a novel on film, then you can reach a much wider audience. This approach can render extremely controversial, horrific or difficult subjects more accessible to the general public by using the feature film as a touchstone for educating a larger audience about events around the world. The following films based on actual events are presented by directors who were each inspired to tell these stories.

Genocide in Rwanda

Two films screened at the Berlinale examine the genocide which occurred in Rwanda in 1994 from different perspectives. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana (a Hutu) and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira (a Hutu) was shot down. This stopped implementation of the Arusha Peace Accords after decades of unrest between Hutus and Tutsis. That night Hutus massacred thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Two days later, the Tutsi Rwandese Patriotic Front launched an offensive to stop the killings. United Nations peacekeeping troops were advised to standby and not breach their mandate to monitor the situation. Foreign governments, including the U.S., France and Belgium, rescued their own citizens while the slaughter among Rwandans continued for 100 days. These films present very personal accounts of the horrific slaughter and those who sought to save their families, friends and even strangers.

The Movies

Sometimes in April (U.S.A./Rwanda) begins on April 7, 2004, in Kigali, Rwanda with Augustin (Idris Elba), now a school teacher, discussing the national “Day of Remembrance” with his students. They watch video of President Bill Clinton calling for “global vigilance” to prevent such atrocities from happening again. Back home, Augustin receives a letter from his brother Honoré (Oris Erhuero), asking Augustin to visit him in prison in Tanzania. Augustin’s girlfriend, Martine (Pamela Nomvete), who is pregnant with their child, encourages him to see Honoré. Honoré was a popular public figure who espoused Hutu propaganda from the powerful pulpit of Radio RTLM in Rwanda. He encouraged Hutus to kill the Tutsis he called “cockroaches”. He is on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha for inciting genocide. When the brothers see each other, the story flashes back to April 1994 when President Habyarimana’s plane is shot down and the killings begin. Augustin, then a Hutu army officer, fears for his Tutsi wife Jeanne (Carole Karemera) and their three children. He tries to reach his daughter Anne-Marie at her Catholic boarding school and asks his brother to use his connections to get Jeanne and their two sons to safety. What happens to Jeanne and their children is based on true accounts. Without being able to find his daughter, Augustin reaches the safe haven of the Hotel des Mille Collines. By day 65 of the genocide, around 620,000 have been killed. In a U.S. State Department press briefing a government official says that although “acts of genocide” have occurred, a designation of genocide is not yet necessary. This meant the United Nations was not obligated to intervene. By day 100, more than 800,000 Rwandans had been slaughtered.

In Hotel Rwanda (U.K./South Africa/U.S.A./Italy), the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) who served as manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the massacre that occurred is strikingly told. The four-star Sabena hotel catered to Europeans but was frequented by local military and politicians. When the killings began, several United Nations peacekeepers were stationed at the hotel entrance for the protection of foreign visitors. The U.N. soldiers were led by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte).

Paul, a Hutu, was married to Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), a Tutsi, and they had two children. He brought his family to the hotel and continued services as much as possible. But then Tutsis and targeted Hutus sought refuge at the hotel, telling the horrors of hundreds murdered in their houses and on the streets by machetes. Paul bribed the General of the Hutu militia with scotch, beer and cash to turn a blind eye to the Tutsis hiding in the hotel. The Rwandans watched as foreign visitors were all evacuated. Paul begged the management of Sabena in Belgium to help them. He called every important contact he had ever made at the hotel. Ultimately, he realized that no European or other assistance was forthcoming. Even the U.N. soldiers were forbidden to intervene. When Paul’s supplies ran out and the General advised he could no longer protect the hotel, it is his courage, determination and wit that saved him, his family and more than 1200 others from brutal death.

The Message

The director of Sometimes in April, Raoul Peck, was asked by the president of HBO Films, Colin Callender, to make a film about the Rwandan genocide after success with the award winning film Lumumba (2002). Peck traveled to Rwanda to experience the country and found his inspiration in the church of Ntarama. “I was turning the pages of an old, bloodstained Bible lying on the floor in the middle of clothes, bones, useless kitchenware and school notebooks,” said Peck. “I thought, ‘This does not make any sense.’” Then he knew the film had to be made. He met Rwandans from both sides of the conflict – survivors and victimizers. Although the 100 days of massacre are revealed through the story of a fictional family, what the family experiences is recreated from true stories.

In this film, Peck says, “I wanted to explain, as much as possible in a film, the mechanics of genocide. How does something like this happen? Why is there still no response for these tragedies of unimaginable proportions, such as we are witnessing today in the Darfur region of Sudan? Still, I didn’t want to make an easily digestible summary on genocide, but rather something that would push the audience further, make them think and discuss.” Peck shows how some Hutu neighbors tried to help their Tutsi friends while others joined in the killings. At a Catholic boarding school for young girls, when Hutu and Tutsi students refused to stand apart according to their tribal ancestry, Hutu extremists shot them all as they clung together then fell dead and dying in a heap. Television showed from a distance a man swinging his machete, again and again, killing another. Peck used the actual news clip which he said was the only murderous event ever shown on Western TV during the 100 days of slaughter. Peck wanted to reveal the horrors of the atrocities without sensationalizing the killings. At the same time, he emphasized the lack of help from the Western world, particularly the United States, which is represented by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Prudence Bushnell (played by Debra Winger). Behind the scenes, Bushnell is frustrated and grieved by her inability to move her own administration, whose reluctance derived from the death of eighteen American soldiers in Somalia just six months before. Without an official determination of genocide, the U.N. troops could not intervene. Journalists left the film shaken with some fighting back tears at the press conference that followed.

Director Terry George and writer/co-executive producer Keir Pearson had a different approach. They wanted the audience to have an intimate, insider’s view of what happened at the Hotel des Mille Collines. Most of the film takes place within the hotel, concentrating on the agony of the survivors, and deliberately avoids focus on the genocide. At the hotel, Paul, his family and other survivors prepare for the worst as Colonel Oliver explains, “We think you’re dirt…the West…all the superpowers…we’re not going to stay, Paul.” Paul depletes the supplies of the hotel and uses all the money he can lay his hands on to bribe Hutu soldiers to allow more refugees to stay. All the while foreign visitors are loaded onto U.N. trucks and buses. Paul tells his remaining “guests” that they must appear to be keeping the hotel operating, saying, “We can only save ourselves.” Producer Alex Ho advises, “This is a powerful human drama, not a horror story, and we believe it is important that the widest possible audience should see it.” The result is a truly powerful, emotional story of survival.

Neither film satisfactorily addresses why the international community failed to timely intervene. But the websites for both films provide more information and show audiences how to get out of the theaters and into real life. The HBO Films website ( serves as a portal about what occurred in Rwanda and includes events taking place today such as sexual violence against Rwandan women. There are links to Human Rights Watch where you can learn about current crises in Dafur and precisely what steps individuals can take to make a difference.

The Hotel Rwanda website ( explains how to donate to the International Fund for Rwanda, which was founded by people who worked on Hotel Rwanda and filmmakers who partnered with the United Nations Foundation. This fund directly supports Humanitarian, Development, and Survivor Programs on the ground in Rwanda. There are also links to maps, historical references and a teacher’s guide on Rwanda.

The press packets for the films contain other information: Hotel Rwanda explains how different tribes lived together peacefully until the intervention of Westerners; Sometimes in April includes "100 Days of Slaughter - A Chronology of U.S./U.N. Actions" and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” No doubt both directors intended to do more than make engrossing films. There are messages throughout their films stressing how other nations shamefully stood by and let genocide devastate a nation. With other tragedies occurring around the world, it remains to be seen whether anyone is truly listening.