Scripted from Life

For screenwriter Keir Pearson ’89, success and social consciousness have gone hand in hand. His first script, Hotel Rwanda, co-written with Terry George, was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay. What’s more, Pearson is responsible for bringing a story that desperately needed to be told back to public attention in a way that would spark interest. In 1994, Hutu militia killed more than 800,000 Rwandans, mostly members of the Tutsi minority, in barely three months while most of the world looked away. Media coverage was sparse; the public was apathetic rather than incensed. Pearson’s film brought the horrific events home for millions of moviegoers and provoked discussion of the current genocide in Sudan. Hotel Rwanda tells the story of one man, hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), a Hutu married to a Tutsi, who sheltered more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees in the five-star Hotel Mille Collines during the slaughter by bribing and blackmailing militia officials with money, rhetoric, good food, and alcohol.

Paul Rusesabagina and Keir Pearson
Courtesy of Keir Pearson

The Rwandan genocide was not an issue for Pearson until Rusesabagina’s story brought the events to life for him. He had concentrated in East Asian languages and civilizations before studying film at NYU’s Tisch School, taking a year off in between to compete with the Olympic men’s rowing team. In 1999 he was supporting himself by editing documentaries when his friend John Robinson ’90, who had spent the past seven years in Tanzania, told him about Rusesabagina. “What I didn’t know about the Rwandan genocide was that the UN had troops on the ground but there was a conscious decision to do nothing and bury the story,” Pearson says. “So here you have Paul, just a common man who took a stand and was very productive when all these powerful men decided to do nothing.” Five years later, a decade after the genocide, Hotel Rwanda was released.

In the interval, Pearson had poured his own time and resources into the script, collecting testimony from hundreds of survivors in America and Rwanda and meeting Rusesabagina, who had to flee his country and now runs his own taxi service in Belgium. In Rwanda, Pearson observed what he describes as “a powder keg.” Rwandans continue to struggle with the aftermath of the genocide. Local shrines keep the sense of outrage fresh—for example, in churches where hundreds of Tutsis were killed en masse, skeletons still litter the floors. In many villages, public buildings are now jails for war criminals; grassroots tribunals have sprung up in lieu of official procedures.

The trip renewed Pearson’s determination to tell the story in a way that would make people listen. After completing the script, he set out for Los Angeles in 2001 to find backing—a hard sell because of the project’s difficult subject matter and largely black cast. Exhaustive inquiries finally led him to Terry George, whose films In the Name of the Father and Some Mother’s Son explored sectarian strife in modern Ireland. George agreed to direct the film. “Terry took me under his wing,” Pearson says. “I was part of the process the whole way through.” George committed as much of his own time and money to the project as Pearson had, and their faith was well-placed: the film’s strong reception ensured its success from a commercial standpoint. Though its social impact is hard to quantify, Pearson is satisfied. “The thing I love about Hotel Rwanda is it really punched through to the public consciousness” he says. “You see that reflected in op-ed pieces saying, ‘We don’t want to see a Hotel Sudan.’ I think it’s a back-and-forth process, where you have the public and the politicians and everyone affected by not just films but all of the media, and we slowly evolve through give and take. I think this type of film just keeps pushing us in the right direction.” 

~Emer Vaughn


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