Desperation, Fear On Both Sides of 'Gates'

"Beyond the Gates," based on the 1994 Rwanda genocide, traverses a course in which just about every well-intentioned person proves to be all too human. (Photos By Ifc Films)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

"Beyond the Gates" leads us again to the Rwanda of 1994, a place where genocide was allowed to run its brutal course. If its scenes of tribal violence feel overly familiar to viewers of 2004's "Hotel Rwanda," its account of desperate choices made in the throes of terror remains emotionally powerful viewing. And the film's underlying cautionary tale about Western indifference deserves revisiting.

"Hotel Rwanda" inspired audiences by observing the tragedy through the eyes of Paul Rusesabagina -- played so movingly by Don Cheadle -- a real-life Hutu tribesman who sheltered Tutsis from his own marauding people. "Beyond the Gates," a true story told through fictional characters, takes us on a more ambiguously moral course in which journalists, peacekeepers, volunteers and clergy all have their foibles, weaknesses and moral shortcomings.

Unlike Rusesabagina, who overcame his initial reluctance to help so many people, most of the players here are hopelessly and more recognizably human. The only exception is one dedicated priest -- played with effortless gravitas by John Hurt -- who remains steadfast in his faith and dedication. This sobering vision of humanity offers an odd sort of comfort, suggesting that even the best of us are riddled with fear and compromise.

This internal struggle is embodied by Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), a young and popular teacher at a parochial school who has come to Uganda filled with missionary zeal. When the Hutus rise to slaughter the rival Tutsis, and Belgian U.N. peacekeepers transform the school into a military base and refugee shelter, Joe's moral certainties suffer a slow attrition. It's easy enough to take care of the people when everyone's safely ensconced inside the school gates. But what happens when the foreigners leave en masse? Does a dedicated Christian save his own skin or save the Tutsis?

Produced and co-written by David Belton, a BBC journalist who witnessed these events in Rwanda, "Beyond the Gates" bears the chilly authority of verisimilitude. It was shot in and around the school where hundreds of men, women and children met their gruesome deaths; director Michael Caton-Jones used a combination of professionals and local Rwandans, most of whom lost loved ones to the carnage. (The British-made movie was released in 2005 as "Shooting Dogs," but its American distributor, IFC Films, changed the title in response to early misperceptions that the original name referred to Rwandans or implied cruelty to animals.)

The film may employ the well-worn tradition of filtering African stories through the experiences of Europeans, but they use the conceit for some penetrating revelations.

A Belgian captain (Dominique Horwitz) who refuses to fire a single bullet without word from the United Nations in New York, Hurt's priest's insistence on performing Mass in the face of imminent danger, and Joe's agonized decision-making all convey in microcosm the outside world's varied reactions to the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis in a matter of 100 days. And in one of the movie's most disturbing statements, a white BBC journalist (Nicola Walker) confesses to Joe that she cried when she saw bodies in Bosnia -- she could relate to them -- but she feels nothing when she looks at the African slain. "Doesn't that sound awful?" she says.

Scottish director Caton-Jones's canny direction is the perfect response for those who would judge him by his disastrous "Basic Instinct 2." (They can also consider his underrated "Rob Roy" and "Scandal.") In "Beyond the Gates," he strategically uses our knowledge of these events against us, as it were. The movie's opening scenes of apparent peace and harmony at the school become increasingly tense precisely because we know the unspeakable is coming. When a distant boom is heard in the sky, many will recognize it as the missile downing of a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, both Hutus. That assassination, which Hutus used as a pretext for genocide, is the beginning of the end, and a moment for us to reflect on the shot that wasn't heard around the world.

Beyond the Gates (109 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for strong violence, disturbing images and profanity.

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