by Mel Valentin
In 1994, Rwanda descended into violence and genocide. Split along ethnic lines, the Hutus, a majority but until recently without political power, and the Tutsis, a minority of the population, the Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, helped to hold a fragile peace. When he died in an airplane crash, the Tutsis were blamed. Tutsis were being systematically rounded up and executed by militias carrying machetes. In just over three months, 800,000 Tutsis lost their lives. The international community failed to intervene, even when the enormity of the genocide became common knowledge. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones ("Basic Instinct 2," "The Jackal," "Rob Roy," "This Boy’s Life," "Scandal"), "Beyond the Gates" ("Shooting Dogs") asks one of the most significant questions we can and should ask ourselves, “What would do if you could save lives by risking your own?”April, 1994, Kigali, Rwanda. Father Christopher (John Hurt), a Catholic priest, makes his home at a technical school, the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO). There, Christopher ministers to his Rwandan parishioners. Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), young, idealistic, and naïve, has come to Rwanda to teach, to “give something back” to those he believes are more deserving. Conner loves teaching, but he also loves interacting with the children, including Marie (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a girl at the ETO with a passion for running. The ETO compound is also (temporary) home to a Belgian military unit led by Capitaine Charles Delon (Dominique Horwitz) and operating under the auspices of the United Nations. Tasked to monitor the peace between the Tutsis and the Hutus, Delon has minimal authority to respond when the peace breaks down and the Hutus begin to massacre the Tutsis.
"What would you do?"
Tutsis fleeing the Hutus arrive at the ETO compound, hoping to find a safe haven. Among the Tutsis are Marie and her father, Roland (Steve Toussaint), and Edda (Susan Nalwoga), a pregnant woman whom Christopher has befriended. In all, 2,500 Tutsis enter the compound. Christopher and Conner try to convince Delon to defend the Tutsis from the Hutus, but he refuses, citing the limited mandate the UN has given him and his men. Christopher and Conner help the refugees with their immediate needs (e.g., water, food, blankets and wood), but are quickly overwhelmed. Hutus begin massing outside the ETO compound, waiting for the first opportunity to kill the Tutsis. For the moment, though, a standoff exists between the Hutus and the UN troops. Conner, hoping to bring the Tutsis plight to the world, makes a daring run outside the ETO compound to bring back a BBC reporter, Rachel Watson (Nicola Walker), and her cameraman, Mark (Jack Pierce).
It’s hard, almost impossible, to believe that Beyond the Gates was made by the same filmmaker who directed last year’s consensus choice for worst film, Basic Instinct 2. Frivolous, contrived, and campy (and we haven't even started talking about Sharon Stone's ridiculously over-the-top performance as a fading femme fatale), Basic Instinct 2 was the very definition of a guilty pleasure for the select few who ventured into local multiplexes and bravely purchased tickets for a screening. On its own, Basic Instinct 2 was a sign that Caton-Jones had little to no interest in making films with any kind of emotional or intellectual depth. Caton-Jones seemed content to direct frivolous entertainment as a work-for-hire director (i.e., a hack), albeit a well-paid hack.
Beyond the Gates is everything Basic Instinct 2 wasn’t and couldn’t be. Not only does Beyond the Gates rigorously examine the moral complexities and ethical dilemmas faced by individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international institutions, e.g., the United Nations Security Council, which sat idly by as Hutus massacred Tutsis by the tens, then hundreds of thousands. Beyond the Gates reminds us that the failure in Rwanda was a failure to act, paralysis in the face of a brutal genocide that was first denied then ignored until, finally, more than three-quarters of a million Rwandans lay dead. But Caton-Jones and his screenwriter, David Wolstencroft, working from a story by Richard Alwyn, never allow polemics to overcome the human element, the men and women who lived and died through the genocide.
While the producers claims that Beyond the Gates is “based on a true story,” Christopher and Joe are composite characters, not real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide. Their experiences are likewise composites of the experiences Richard Alwyn, a journalist who lived and worked in Rwanda in 1994 and witnessed the genocide unfold, noted when he researched the massacre at the ETO to serve as the microcosm for his story. This much, however, is true. Armed Belgian-UN troops, the priests, and teachers offered fleeing Tutsis safe haven from the Hutus. Later, NGO employees and other Europeans appeared at ETO’s gates. As the mass killings intensified, the UN ordered the Belgians to retreat to the airport. The troops escorted the Europeans to the airport, but left 2,500 Tutsis behind for the waiting Hutus."Beyond the Gates" is among the best, if not the best film to be made about Africa by Western filmmakers for, presumably, Western audiences since Africa became the subject de jour for recent “social conscience” films, a list includes "Blood Diamond," "Hotel Rwanda," "The Constant Gardener," and "Lord of War," all good-to-great films in their own right. None, however, match "Beyond the Gates" for its combination of strong, faultless storytelling, “slow-burn” pacing that builds inexorably toward its tragic denouement, well-drawn, flawed characters, first-rate performances by John Hurt (simply magnificent here) and Hugh Dancy, a young British actor whose deeply nuanced performance here bodes well for his future as an actor. It’s also refreshing when the most sympathetic, heroic character in "Beyond the Gates" turns out to be a Catholic priest wrestling with his conscience and his faith.
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originally posted: 03/22/07 00:44:34