Black Hawk Down and Hotel Rwanda the Use of Sound
Africa in the early 1990s was a turbulent place full of famine, strife, and war. You should have a transition sentence here. The heinous acts that occurred in the Rwandan genocide are prophetically portrayed in Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda. George’s portrayal of genocide is a very personal one; he both wrote and directed the film, doing much of the investigation into the genocide himself. As the writer and director of the film, George is able to use cinematic techniques of sound and editing in uniquely and emotionally taxing ways. He uses the sounds of chaos and violence throughout the film to convey feelings of confusion, desperation and danger. There is a constant sound of gunfire in the background of the film, fostering a feeling of uncertainty, something reiterated by the Rwandans who were interviewed in the investigation. Ridley Scott similarly portrays civil strife in early 1990s Africa in Black Hawk Down. Scott uses the American–Somali Black Hawk incident and the Battle of Mogadishu as the basis for the film. Like George, Scott uses editing and sound to recreate the plight of the greatly outnumbered soldiers. The auditory track running in the background of the film and the use of discontinuous editing creates a world of chaos throughout the movie. The directors of both films, through their use of sound effects and editing techniques, simulate for the viewer the violence and chaos of a war-stricken Africa.
The sound of gunfire has become synonymous with modern warfare in cinema. There are few depictions of modern warfare without the sound of gunfire. Its use in Black Hawk Down is so paramount that the viewer must be given a diegetic explanation about how to interpret the sounds of bullets just before the first battle scene. This explanation provides the viewer with a better understanding of what sounds they should listen for in battle to recognize danger. The explanation is given by Private John Waddell to specialist John Grimes, who has never experienced combat– presumptively similar to most of the audience– in order to tell if he is being shot at by using the sound of the bullets to judge the distance of the shooter. Waddell tells Grimes, “If the bullets snaps, then it is far away. But if it hisses, that means it passed close…” but he does not get to finish the word because at this moment bullets start hissing past them. This diegetic dialog is very important because it helps the viewer conceptualize the level of danger just by using their auditory senses.
The volume and location of the origin of sound is used frequently to enhance the effect of being trapped by the gunfire and violence that consumes these movies. Gunfire from different distances produces different effects. There is a foreboding feeling when it is faraway and an intense, frightful feeling when it is close. In Black Hawk Down, the soldiers are trapped in the markets and streets of Mogadishu. If they venture out into the open, they are fired on and the startling sound of gunfire at close range comes from every direction, pinning the soldiers down and making it hard to navigate the streets of the hostile city. Surrounding the soldiers, a rainstorm of bullets seems to fall everywhere; hissing, whizzing, snapping, and popping, creating an atmosphere of insanity and danger. An association between gunfire and being pinned down, trapped, starts to form in the viewer’s mind.
In Hotel Rwanda, the idea that the Mille Collins (briefly explain what this is) is an “oasis” in a sea of chaos is reiterated throughout the film. Surrounding the Mille Collins there is nothing but suffering and death; however, inside there is relative peace and security. Suffering does, at times, penetrate the oasis through the sounds of violence. The frantic upheaval associated with the interahamwe militia is just one such penetration of the hotel. The violence, quick camera movement and loud diegetic and non-diegetic sounds make the sequences of intrusions feel much more frantic. The interahamwe is associated with chaos and death, and causes panic in most viewers. George uses them to represent the frightening prospects of mob mentality In the film they are even referred to as “crazy men” by General Bizimungo.
Permeation of the hotel is as sudden as the sounds themselves. While having a romantic dinner on the rooftop of the hotel, Paul and Tatiana are made to endure sporadic bursts of gunfire, dogs barking and screams of rape and murder all around them. Their panoramic view of Kigali at night is of pitch black hills lit up from artillery fire and the razing of parts of the city. It reminds the viewer that there is nowhere for these people to go; they are trapped inside the confines of the hotel. Gunfire is used in the slow, grueling process of wearing down the viewer’s spirit. Throughout the whole film there is gunfire in the background. It wears down the viewer so that they do not want to which any more. Even in Paul and Tatiana’s hotel room, lying on white sheets in what appears to be a peaceful environment, gunfire and screams of rape are heard faintly in the background. Inside the hotel room is a time for the viewer to collect his or her thoughts. This is essential to a film this graphic. The viewer must see something resembling normalcy in order to have point of reference to judge the atrocities against. George invades that small amount of normalcy and injects the suffering that the normalcy is meant to recover from. This keeps the viewer constantly on their toes and constantly reminded of how dismal the situation really is.
Without sound, both films become drastically different in their context and their potency. Black Hawk Down is no longer suspenseful, leaving the viewer jumpy and paranoid. The ominous feeling that there isn’t way for any of the solders not to be shot is gone. Without hearing the hundreds of bullets whizzing around the soldiers there is no fear of imminent death. In An Introduction to Film Studies by Jill Nelmes, Nelmes describes the lack of diegetic sound as a defining experience that changes the context of a film. In Black Hawk Down Specialist Shaun Nelson goes deaf in the heat of battle when an M16 is fired next to his head. The intensity of the battle for him is determined only by what he can see; he cannot hear the thousands of bullets flying all around or the battle raging around every corner. Specifically during evening prayer would seem normal if the viewer wasn’t able to hear in a battle. Not being able to hear, the viewer is unaware that the city has fallen silent and that all the gunfire has ceased. Though the intensity of the battle has not changed, for his fellow soldiers there is as calm, a time of mental rest. He is still on edge; to him there is the same level of danger and intensity of the battle because he cannot hear the diegetic sound.
Hotel Rwanda without sound is still gruesome and frantic at times, but it loses its potency and pungency. Scenes involving the interahamwe and massacre are difficult to watch, yet made somewhat easier. The chaos created by the noise strikes terror into the viewer so that even the scenes of genocide or people that are being cut to pieces with machetes, are easier to handle without the screaming of the victims. Without the sound you can see the expressions on the individual’s faces but it is hard to tell why they are expressing these emotions. It is not the dialog that is missing; the ambient sounds of violence and the non-diegetic music are the sounds with the most effect on the viewer.
The synchronization of both diegetic and non-diegetic music with the dialog in the film shapes the emotions and the viewing experience. There are times that the music is so intense it the audience in a trance-like state. This strong trance-like music is replayed in various scenes. When Paul falls out of the van, on the road by the river, onto the hundreds of dead bodies the music makes the scene extremely emotion. At this time it is the non-diegetic music that is overtly intense and overwhelming. Soon after this scene Paul is describing the unfathomable carnage to Dube, here similar diegetic music from some of the young girls dancing outside the hotel produces a similar trance like affect. The dancing girls who are innocent and just trying to keep their minds off their dire situation enhance this diegetic music with their dance.
Throughout the film the story is narrated by the various diegetic sounds such as the radio. Even the credits for the production companies in the beginning of the film have sound clips of radio reports of the time in the background. They are clips about the crisis in Sarajevo. At the time of the Rwandan genocide the sentiment was in Africa that “the west” had a “white war” in the Balkans to pay attention too. There was a feeling of abandonment in Africa; George sets up this whole mind set by just using low volume and very short radio clips. This feeling of abandonment is reinforced in dialog when Col. Oliver tells Paul that the west has abandoned them. Here there is no need for a distant radio to tell him what is going to happen, Col. Oliver is telling Paul directly. Here the audience understands one of the main inspirations from making the film. To show the world how not even the U.N. was there to help them.
There is other moving and powerful diegetic dialog in the film. A story told to Paul and Tatiana by Madam Archer one of the only Red Cross volunteers in the country is a horrific and heinous part of the film. It is not portrayed visually but the oral version is no less graphic. She tells them about the massacre of young Tutsi orphans by the interahamwe. She describes how the interahamwe forced her to watch them slaughter half of the orphanage. As her eyes swell with tears she tells the story of one small girl and her sister, the girl turns to Madam Archer just as they are about to chop her and says “Please don’t let them kill me. I… I promise I won’t be Tutsi anymore.” This is too much for Tatiana to take and she leaves, something that the audience does not have the option of doing. The audience must sit and ruminate and watch as Madam Archer describes the methods of killing and eventually here wallowing in her own solace after being witness to such atrocities.
George’s intricate diegetic sounds throughout the film help him narrate the story and purvey the general feeling for parts of the film. Throughout the film two Radio stations alternately narrate the story. Each being associated with different parts of the film RLTM is associated with Hutu violence and hate and News Service Africa gives a more soothing report of events however dire they may be. RLTM Hutu Power Radio is extremist Hutu rhetoric, nothing short of hate speech and propaganda. The director establishes the voice of the interahamwe the RLTM, a loud harsh irrational male, who not only commands respect but also instills fear. His hate speech incites various scenes of violence. Hate filled speeches such as:
“When people ask me good listeners why do you hate all the Tutsi? I say read our history. The Tutsi were collaborators for the Belgian colonies. They stole our Hutu land, the whipped us. Now they have come back, these Tutsi rebels they are cockroaches, they are murderers! Rwanda is our Hutu land. We are the majority and they are a minority of traitors and invaders, we will squash the infestation. We will wipe out the RPF rebels; this is RTLM Hutu Power Radio. Stay alert and watch your neighbors.”
It is the RTLM that is the initial catalyst to violence, uses the code “cut down the tall trees” to tell the Hutu interahamwe that it is time to start the massacre. Every time this diegetic source of sound is heard things go from bad to worse. The viewers, in turn, subconsciously or consciously brace themselves for more violence when they Hear RTLM. The hope that News Service Africa gives is the wishful thinking that help may come eventually. The voice is a soothing woman’s voice that talks calmly and slowly. This radio station is heard more often when there is relative claim in the film and is associated with claim. Both radio stations are catalysts in the film, one of killing and violence and one of peace and hope.
George uses both radio stations interchangeably; it has a unique effect in the narration of the film. In the beginning of the film Paul is listing to the radio in the car on his way home from work. At first it is tuned to RTLM and hate filled rhetoric threatening the president flies over the air wharves. Disturbed Paul changes the channel to New Service Africa with the soothing voice of its radio host, calmly talking about the currant situation in Rwanda. As Paul changes the channel form RTLM to New Service Africa the two voices are drastically different in, tone, volume, rhetoric and points of view. One news story is told while Paul is in the car. Each station repots on about half of the story each putting its own spin on it. George uses this technique repeatedly. It allows him to be able to give both points of view without having to retell each part of the story.
An eerie whisper in an unintelligible language is the only thins the viewer can hear as Paul tries to put on the radio the day that the peace accord is signed. After his discussion with his in-laws there is a dark mood the movie. The diegetic music is so eerie and uncomfortable that any radio even RTLM would be welcome. The fact that there is no news at all is a bad sign. As Paul tries to reestablish his connection with the radio, he passes the fist acts of violence but does not know why they are happening. Here instead of telling the viewer what is going on through the radio the viewer must wait to find out. The longer it takes for the viewer to find out what is going on the more suspenseful it becomes, climaxing in his living room. The constant narration of the film is halted here in order to build up suspense.
George uses pungent non-diegetic music across the movie intensifying the expense of the viewer. Many times it is hard to tell where the music is coming from. When the French orphans flood into the Mille Collines compound, you can here children singing and you think that it is the children as they enter. As they get closer you can see that they are not singing as they enter the compound but running for their lives. The music that the viewer thought was diegetic is in fact non-diegetic. The music that originally was hopeful to the viewer becomes sad and depressing and the scene soon becomes pandemonium. Here the music did not change but the visual effects of the movie change the viewer’s perspective and context of the music.
Non-diegetic music is used in Black Hawk Down most powerfully in the very beginning of the film. White text, roles over footage of scorched earth and dead decaying bodies, tells the background story of the Somali conflict and devastating famine. Describing the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the deplorable human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Somali warlords. The non-diegetic music is indigenous music to Somalia and is very intense; it overpowers all other emotion and captivates the viewer. Making just the back-story the most depressing and somber parts of the film. The music and the information that you are receiving make you wary of watching the rest of the film, the audience must mentally prepare themselves for the rest of their viewing.
Immediately following a toast to peace, George uses diegetic sounds to convey overbearing imamate danger. Immediately preceding the announcement of the peace accords and everyone is celebrating; storm clouds role in and ominous distant thunder can be heard getting closer and closer. Paul’s in-laws come to see his at the hotel very worried for their safety. They beg Paul to let them take Tatiana out of the country. When he consoles them but hastily dismisses their worries as rumors started by agitators. They tell him about the secret Hutu radio message that will incite violence. As they are talking about this thunder is rolling in the background and lighting can be seen in the distance. He tells them that they will come to his house and talk about it tomorrow. Before they are able to meet with Paul the violence erupts and they are killed in the massacres. George uses the thunder and lighting as foreshadowing for both the overall situation and the personal story of Paul’s family. After they leave and there prediction of a radio message came to fruition. The storm clouds are an obvious ominous sign that is used to create an uneasy feeling.
The editing techniques used in Black Hawk Down emphasize the soldier’s mindset of confusion to the viewer. Scotts use of sound and editing creates a unique effect that helps the viewer follow the story. In the film the progression of sound is linear and has no temporal anomalies. Scott though chose to use discontinuous editing that jumped from story line to story line but was able to synchronize the scenes with the linier sound. The sound in the film, no matter how abruptly the scene changes, it is always in sync with whams the film jumps quickly from scene to scene the sound in the film is fluid in that it seems almost never to change dependent on where the person is geographically but rather what time it is over all. Instead of the intensity of sound being determined by location it is determined by time. Scotts use of the same sounds for everywhere make all of Mogadishu feel like it is experiencing the same battle and with the same intensity. According to Alberto Caivalcant in his article, “Sounds in Film, silence is necessary for the viewer to catch their metaphorical breath.” Scott dose not give many chances for the viewer to do this.
There are a few parts in the film that have the necessary tranquility for the viewer to collect himself or herself emotionally. These parts though are far and few between, giving the viewer an elongated stimulation experience. Scott stresses these points; twice in the film the viewer is told the time by small with text on the bottom of the screen. Both of these times are periods of relative claim in the film. The first time is wide sweeping shots of an early morning sunrise and the sounds of the muezzin calling the faithful to worship. The second time in the film that the viewer is purposefully informed of the time is directly in front of the Pakistani green zone, a designated place of peace and security. Scott uses sound to hold a coherent story line together. He makes the visual part complementary to the foundational auditory aspects of the film. This is a reveres from most films with use sound to complement the visual aspects.
Africa in the 1990s was a turbulent continent. Feelings of depression, strife, anger, despair and danger were rampant. Scoot and George utilize editing and sound effects in order to recreate the most realistic and enjoyable representation of war possible. Black Hawk Down used a unique combination of discontinuity editing and a linier sound progression to overwhelm the viewer. The sounds of violence, particularly gunfire, are used in the films to trap the viewer to leave them on edge of their seat. Screams of pain suffering, rape and murder are heard throughout both films and take an emotional tale on the viewer. The use of powerful non-diegetic music enhanced the effect of the viewer by the gunfire and sounds of violence. Using powerful cinematic techniques the directors expose their audience to the sounds and sights of conflict stricken Africa.