Beyond The Gates Movie Review
Like in 2004's Hotel Rwanda, the bulk of Beyond the Gates is about the establishment of a safe zone within the homicidal abyss that the country so precipitously fell into. As Hutu militia roam the countryside -- drunk, mad with power, and waving bloody machetes like creatures from a nightmare -- and massacring any Tutsis they come across, the school becomes a haven for refugees, with the guns of the few blue-helmeted UN soldiers the only thing keeping the killers at bay. It is also about the lengths to which a number of good people will go to in order to save the lives of the innocent. John Hurt plays the school's resident priest, Father Christopher, with his customary blend of scratch-throated gravitas and self-deprecating wit. Hugh Dancy (somewhat flat here) co-stars as Joe Connor, a sort of Oxfam poster boy, the handsome and well-meaning European spending his gap year teaching in a third world school; like a more moral version of James McAvoy's doctor in The Last King of Scotland. Both are stunned into near-incomprehension by the butchery going on outside the gates, but act in extremely different ways. This is not a film that allows an audience the easy out of providing them a character who does the right thing and is rewarded for it.
Based in large part on the personal experiences of co-writer David Belton, a BBC journalist at the time, Beyond the Gates has that awful, awful taint of authenticity about it, which will likely ensure a very limited success (the film was completed in 2005 but is only now getting a U.S. release). Director Michael Caton-Jones -- of Doc Hollywood and Basic Instinct 2 infamy, who illustrates that he can do honest, non-showy work when he wants to -- pulls no punches with the violence here, not looking away but also not wallowing in it. In one particularly harrowing scene, a number of refugees make a run for it away from the school before being unceremoniously slashed down by Hutu militiamen. The whole film carries a tight air of inescapability about it, as viewers know where this all is heading. The UN is not allowed to do anything but act in self-defense, and so it is a matter of time before the school becomes just another killing ground.
As a damning invective against Western moral cowardice, Beyond the Gates is extremely effective, highlighting the ridiculous irony of UN soldiers who want to shoot the dogs feeding on Tutsi corpses outside the gates, but won't fire a bullet to defend live Tutsis (the original title was, in fact, Shooting Dogs). As a moral parable and history lesson, it's even more so, holding at its center a core of bitter outrage that will leave at least some viewers in stunned, heart-stopping dismay by the time the lights go up. What keeps the film from true greatness, however, are a number of key problems.
Firstly, the drama is extremely lacking, Hurt doing what he can with his severely underwritten role, and Dancy's Connor left with little to do but visibly suffer. Secondly, and more importantly, the film resorts to the classic problem of films about Africa by keeping the focus too much on the white people and their problems. Claire-Hope Ashitey (who shone so magnificently in Children of Men) as Marie, a schoolgirl with a crush on Connor, plays the only African character with a significant role, the rest seem merely bystanders in their own holocaust. For a film so outraged by craven and self-serving Western apathy, it's a poor choice, indeed.
It took many years of apathy and bad ideas before truly great Holocaust dramas could be made, too. Sadly, there probably won't be as many tries to get it right with the Rwandan genocide.
Aka Shooting Dogs.