April, 1994. As U.N. forces pull out of a school in Rwanda, a distraught man pleads with the soldiers to turn their guns on the children. He knows bullets will be kinder than machetes.
Though not the first Rwandan genocide film, ‘Beyond the Gates’ succeeds in setting itself apart. From the start, the filmmakers are determined to impart a rare authenticity to this ‘true story’ set in the midst of the 1994 genocide. Not only was ‘Beyond the Gates’ shot on location in Rwanda, it was filmed at the Ecole Technique Officielle, the same school that suffered the brutal massacre portrayed in the film.
In the words of director Michael Caton-Jones, ‘I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of making the film anywhere other than where it actually happened.’
Thousands of Tutsi refugees fled to the ETO, which had become a base of operations for U.N. troops prior to the genocide. Of course, these soldiers were not permitted to engage militarily with the bloodthirsty Hutu militia, even while the Hutus were hacking Tutsi refugees apart with machetes outside the school’s gates.
Unsurprisingly, these scenes of intense and graphic violence are incredibly gruesome, especially when it comes to the images of stray dogs devouring dead Tutsis on the roadside (the film has been released as ‘Shooting Dogs’ in some countries). While such realistic violence is difficult to watch, the filmmakers consider it to be a vital aspect of the film’s integrity.
‘I’m proud the film doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of the violence that occurred, because that’s what the world did. We all looked away,’ says screenwriter David Wolstencroft.
If violent images of genocide present a difficulty for moviegoers, one must wonder what the effect has been on actual survivors of the genocide, several of whom worked on the production of ‘Beyond the Gates.’ Most of these Rwandan cast and crew members lost close relatives during the bloodshed, barely escaping with their own lives.
Karasira Venuste, a consultant and an actor in the film, was one of those who survived, though he suffered the loss of his entire family in the genocide. For survivors, reliving traumatic events during production was especially painful.
‘I had to walk away sometimes because it brought back memories that were very difficult for me,’ Venuste said.
It appears the likely source for authenticating decisions made during the production of ‘Beyond the Gates’ can be traced back to David Belton, one of the film’s producers and the co-writer of the original story. In 1994, Belton was working as a journalist in Rwanda, covering the genocide for a BBC news program. It was during this time that he witnessed the tragedy that would later be memorialized on celluloid.
Indeed, Belton’s career as a journalist seems to bear many similarities to Rachel, the fictional journalist character played by Nicola Walker. Rachel has already covered the war in Bosnia by the time we see her in ‘Beyond the Gates,’ and while she certainly exudes a hunger for the truth, we slowly see the emergence of a jaded individual frustrated by the futility of her efforts. As Belton recalls of his time in Rwanda, ‘I felt I had failed as a journalist.’
In many ways, the theme of journalism itself is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. In addition to addressing the personal conflicts journalists face in catastrophic events like genocide, ‘Beyond the Gates’ even attempts to adopt their perspective in a highly visual manner. During certain scenes, the film breaks from narrative form into a more naturalistic, documentary style. Fusing these scenes with actual footage of press conferences and various sound bites helps illustrate the tragic reality of Rwanda.
The fact that both main characters are neither Rwandan nor part of the actual story creates a subtle tension with the notion of authenticity. Rather than have a Rwandan protagonist, the story of the ETO focuses on two Caucasians: Catholic priest Father Christopher (John Hurt) and English teacher Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), both inspired by several people Belton encountered while working in Rwanda.
Though it might seem tempting to claim that Caucasian protagonists erode the authenticity of ‘Beyond the Gates,’ it is important to understand that aside from giving the audience a Western perspective, these characters demonstrate humanity’s capacity for a compassion that transcends notions of race and nationality.
For Hurt, demonstrating such compassion came naturally. ‘It’s about having been brought up with the whole idea of conviction, of a calling,’ he says of his own Christian background.
Dancy was faced with the challenge of portraying a character who struggles to maintain his convictions in the course of the genocide. Torn between the Rwandan students he cherishes and his family back home, the young teacher is forced to make an almost impossible decision. For Dancy, ‘Beyond the Gates’ succeeds as a film because it puts ‘a human face to the genocide and the suffering, the choices and the failures.’