Towards the end of the movie the main character, Paul (played by Don Cheadle in an Oscar-nominated performance), is desperately searching for his wife and children amidst a hotel that has been overtaken by militants. He finally finds his loved ones huddled in bathtub, hiding behind the shower curtain. He rips the curtain open and is face to face with his terrified wife, who frantically clings to a showerhead as if it were a gun. Paul embraces her, and gesturing towards the showerhead, asks, What were you going to do with that?
It was a deftly placed joke. We the audience had been immersed in non-stop genocidal horror almost from the outset of the film; none of us viewers had so much as exhaled for the past 90 minutes. We were at an emotional breaking point, and we needed a way out.
The joke made sense. What was most striking was the audience response: boisterous, sustained hoots and whoops that slid into a smattering of side comments, as well as other miscellaneous noises. These laughs were in sitcom territory.
I had a giggle myself, and even the characters on-screen broke into smiles, but I immediately realized the innate horror in this absurdity. Here were people who were so hopelessly desperate that all they had to stave off death was a vinyl curtain and a squirt of pressurized water.
I assumed that this stifling realization would have kept the laughs tame, but I was horribly wrong.
Perhaps it is understandable. We just needed a good laugh to handle being sad again for the last 30 minutes of the film. After all, could the filmmakers really expect us to feel terrorized and utterly helpless for a full two hours?
Thats a long time, considering that even the most insufferable lectures never exceed an hour and a half. It was bad enough that they burned the potatoes at dinner Saturday night, not to mention that the freaking Pause was out of Cherry Garcia again. For some of us, it seems that two hours of intensity is just too much to ask.
Yet people who experience real horror know that suffering doesnt occur in convenient, bite-sized, movie-length chunks. The horror of humanitarian crises is that they are ever-present, all-consuming and unrelenting. Why couldnt we handle even two hours of it?
About 50 years ago, philosopher Hannah Arendt was just coming to terms with another human tragedy (concentration camps in Nazi Germany), and concluded that when we are confronted by terrible acts, we console ourselves by disassociating ourselves from them. In other words, we tell ourselves that it is far away, that it was in the past and that it could never happen to us.
Unfortunately, terror like this is allowed to thrive precisely because we want to believe that people arent capable of wielding it. Arendt wrote, Normal men dont know that everything is possible, [and] refuse to believe their eyes and ears in the face of the monstrous. I dont mean to say that anyone who laughed during Hotel Rwanda didnt understand the movie. Indeed, after the film had ended, many people wept deeply and talked about how it was unfathomable that no one intervened in the Rwandan genocide crisis of 1994.
But just 30 minutes previous, with our sudden and riotous laughter, we showed how quickly we take advantage of the first chance we get to step out of the horror, to remind ourselves that we are actually safe and sound in our quaint little town, comfortably huddled in our $32,000 blanket of safety and well-being.
A $5 donation to UNICEF may be able to buy first aid kits for three families, but it can also buy a smoothie and chocolate-chip cookie at the Cage.
Seventy-seven years ago, Bertolt Brecht was also struck by the laughter of his audiences.
His work The ThreePenny Opera first premiered to German audiences between the two World Wars in 1928. It was supposed to be an ominous warning, a depiction of just how evil people can become when they lose faith in the efficacy of societal bonds. Yet seeing the inhuman acts laid out on stage had the opposite effect.
Audiences were charmed by such a fresh revelation of bourgeois hypocrisy. They never, for a second, thought that the inhumanity portrayed on stage was actually possible. The plays wild success was a grim prophecy of the great human tragedy which would unfold over the next 20 years in Nazi Germany.
Brecht was trying to warn us of what is possible when we dont take seriously the reality of human terror.
This weekend we have the chance to see Brechts play for ourselves. The drama is pretty heavy, but not to worry; Brecht wrote in several points where its okay to laugh. Just make sure you know what youre laughing about.