It’s easy to sneer at the current vogue for movies bemoaning the agony of Africa, a continent whose troubles show up on our radar in large measure because they feed Hollywood’s gaping maw for action adventures set in exotic climes. From The Constant Gardener to Catch a Fire to Blood Diamond, the industry has cake aplenty and eats it too by pandering to liberal guilt and hubris by building plots around compromised white heroes who save themselves by rescuing a few noble savages from civil war while reflecting on the beast and angel in mankind, usually driven home in topic sentences delivered by comely girl reporters who see the problem from all sides.
However tainted by smelly motives, though, the best of such movies bring the irreplaceable urgency of the big screen to the mess of postcolonial Africa, as well as deep background to the ritualized footage we see on CNN. Heaven knows, the story of Rwanda’s 1994 civil war — in which hundreds of thousands of indigenous Tutsis were hacked to death by packs of vengeful Hutus while Western powers dickered over the precise definition of genocide and the United Nations beat an unseemly retreat — bears endless repeating. Like Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, Michael Caton-Jones’ Beyond the Gates is framed by a state of siege based on a real-life humanitarian and political disaster, in this case the massacre of 2,500 Tutsis at the École Technique Officielle, a Catholic school abandoned to its fate by UN soldiers with orders to evacuate only Europeans. Inspired by the experiences of David Belton, one of the film’s producers and a former BBC reporter in Kigali, the film was shot in Kigali with a cast and crew sprinkled with survivors of the civil war. Watching the repeated scenes of atrocity — images as hard to watch as they are fully justified, given the history — I wondered what it felt like for these local extras, a scant 14 years after the war that all but destroyed their nation, to play machete-wielding Hutus circling the school, or Tutsi victims desperately rushing the trucks that ferried whites to safety.
Though hobbled by the anxious impulse to teach history to an audience that by now surely knows the basic contours of Rwanda’s tragedy, David Wolstencroft’s scrupulous script apportions blame where it belongs, in high office far from the action, while leaving smaller fry — an equivocating young do-gooder played by Hugh Dancy, a tortured Belgian UN commander (Dominique Horwitz) and an admirably uncute BBC journalist (Nicola Walker) who cuts to the heart of Western indifference by bravely admitting that she identifies more readily with Bosnian than African women — dangling, however sympathetically, on the hook. Beyond the Gates makes the usual feeble stab at an indigenous heroine by introducing an underconceived young Tutsi athlete (Claire-Hope Ashitey) taken under Dancy’s wing, before turning the voice of conscience and courage over to the obligatory white missionary. The Tutsi’s lone protector, who’s loosely based on a Bosnian priest who saved Belton from a Hutu militia, is Father Christopher, a British Catholic priest played with his usual dry world-weariness by John Hurt, whose already tested faith is threatened to its core by the mutual slaughter of his own co-workers and neighbors. Beyond the Gates participates in his bedrock religious convictions in ways that will make believers cheer and iconoclasts roll their eyes. But there’s no resisting the priest’s white-hot fury at the powers that helped engineer this catastrophe, and then ran away. No one would call Beyond the Gates subtle filmmaking. But the Rwandan crisis hardly calls for delicate handling, and this impassioned movie, fueled by genuine outrage, is one from the heart of director Michael Caton-Jones, whose heart could probably stand a little warming after he won a Worst Director Razzie for his execrable Basic Instinct 2. Talk about a checkered career.
BEYOND THE GATES | Directed by MICHAEL CATON-JONES | Written by DAVID WOLSTENCROFT | Based on a story by RICHARD ALWYN and DAVID BELTON | Produced by BELTON, PIPPA CROSS and JENS MEURER | Released by IFC Films | Music Hall, Monica 4-Plex