Many Americans likely remember the headlines from April of 1994, when mass genocide broke out in Rwanda. Those who don't recall the ugly tragedy probably had their memory jogged when Don Cheadle's portrayal of heroic Paul Rusesabagina in 2004's Hotel Rwanda garnered him an Oscar nomination. A second release, this time by BBC Films, takes on the same general topic and time period, but tells a very different, very specific story.
When Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane crashed, the country was immediately plunged into civil war as members of the Hutu socio-ethnic group then in power began slaughtering Tutsis, another native African group. Beyond the Gates is set in Kigali at Ecole Technique Officielle, a British Catholic missionary school run by Christopher (John Hurt), a priest, and Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy, Blood and Chocolate), a pre-college volunteer. When violence erupts, thousands of Tutsis seek refuge in the school compound, under guard of Belgian UN peacekeepers. But when UN forces exit—taking only stranded European tourists with them—they all but condemn the encamped Tutsis to death.
Where Hotel Rwanda put a heroic African face to the deplorable actions that occurred during the genocide, Beyond the Gates offers viewers from Western culture the opportunity to experience how the conflict might have felt if they'd been in-country as it unfolded. Hurt and Dancy play starkly contrasting characters with the same goal: helping Rwandans. How each deals with the impending overrun of their school is both surprising and thought-provoking, easily causing viewers to ask themselves, "What would I do were I in these men's shoes?"
Director Michael Caton Jones (Basic Instinct 2, Rob Roy) said that making the film was one of the most amazing experiences of his life, and all involved added that filming on location at the school was both eye-opening and necessary.
Though the production value and acting are both superb, nothing about the film feels very Hollywood-esque. Rather it seems the perfect combination of gritty reality meshed with superior filmmaking. Many genocide survivors were asked to participate in the production, as assistant directors to costumers to extras, adding even more authenticity to the production.
The Catholic affiliation of the story's protagonists could suggest a preachy theme, and though it would be easy to find one, the overall approach of the film does not seem to solicit religious belief, but rather makes viewers question whichever belief system they have. Given extreme circumstances, people often behave in ways they wouldn't normally. Best intentions only count for so much: This is the true moral of the film, as displayed by the actions of the missionaries, as well as the UN soldiers.
Even if you are well-acquainted with the Rwandan conflict—and perhaps even more so if you aren't—Beyond the Gates tells a story worthy of total immersion. The portrayal of graphic violence may be a little much for children, but a true-to-life depiction of yet another dark chapter in human history is a lesson everyone should witness. When deciding which star-studded Hollywood release you intend to rent this week, give a second thought to this title instead.
This DVD courtesy of Hollywood Video, 590 Broadway Ave., 208-342-6117.