United Artists' thriller Hotel Rwanda, directed by Terry George, began shooting in Johannesburg on Monday (Jan 12).

Based on true events, the film is set in Kigali during Rwanda's genocidal civil war and tells the story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina who saved the lives of thousands of helpless Rwandans.

Don Cheadle plays Rusesabagina, while Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix and Nick Nolte join the cast of mainly South African actors.

The film is produced by A Kitman Ho from a script by George and Keir Pearson.

Oscar nominated screenwriter and director Terry George (In The Name of The Father, Some Mother's Son) said: "The film grew out of my desire to make something about Africa, that wasn't about some child, an exotic location and some wild animals. I make films that entertain but that also contain a strong message. In Hotel Rwanda we're taking an event in history and distilling it through the eyes of one particular person."

A Kitman Ho, who was previously in South Africa for the Val Kilmer vehicle The Ghost And The Darkness in 1995, says he has noticed immense changes in terms of film production infrastructure in the country since then.

"The government has created a sound infrastructure from which producers can work from with organisations like the National Film and Video Foundation, the Gauteng Film Office and the Industrial Development corporation. It's a major change from 1995 when as an outside producer we felt as if we were in a kind of sink or swim situation."

Over 10 000 South African extras will be used in the film

The film, which was the early stage of financing at last year's Toronto Film festival, has had a speedy birth - in part due to the Italian/South African co-production treaty that was inked in November at Sithengi in Cape Town.

The complicated financial structuring involves a tri-partite co-production between SA, Italy and the U.K where sale and leaseback financing is being accessed.

South Africa's Industrial Development Corporation is also an active financial partner in the film, which will be released in the US by MGM/UA. International sales are being handled by Lion's Gate.