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You can’t have a film about political unrest without a character who wants to Make a Difference. In Beyond the Gates that character is Joe, a young British secondary-school teacher whose privileged upbringing instilled in him a desire to give back. So, in 1994, he heads to Rwanda, where he witnesses the start of the situation that the U.N. debated semantics about and then largely ignored: the genocide of 800,000 Africans during a 100-day civil war. “You don’t believe that shit?” Joe asks a Tutsi student who explains to him that the attacking Hutus hate her people. Later, when BBC cameras come around, he tells her, “If they’re filming us, then no one can touch us!”
The Joes of the world are idealistic, incredibly naive, and annoying as hell. Actually, that last trait is probably unique to this movie. This Joe is played by Hugh Dancy, a chiseled, nonthreatening hunk with big blue eyes and soft brown curls. His Abercrombie & Fitch face quivers with uncertainty when he and the school’s aging founder and priest, Christopher (John Hurt), learn that a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down. It quivers with resolve when he’s cocksure that he can help the Tutsis who have taken refuge on the gated school grounds. Finally, it quivers with fear when he realizes that the situation is bigger than him. No matter how dusty or torn Joe’s clothes get, that singular expression belies the socioeconomic line that his mind-set will never fully cross. He will never understand what it’s like to be Them.
Unfortunately, Dancy’s casting, combined with David Wolstencroft’s thin script, forces the viewer to remain as detached as the rest of the world was when the atrocities were happening. Based on the eyewitness accounts of writers Richard Alwyn and David Belton, Beyond the Gates is set in (and was filmed at) the Ecole Technique Officielle, whose property was turned first into a U.N. military base and then into an impromptu shelter when thousands of Tutsis pressed against its gates. Christopher and Joe give the Tutsis food, water, medicine, and reassurance; meanwhile, Christopher’s willingness to keep up the struggle fades as he learns of a coup and its bloodshed and, more frustrating, realizes that the U.N. captain (Dominique Horwitz) is taking the international mandate seriously: The soldiers are not to fire unless fired upon, even as they witness Tutsis being macheted to death. Eventually, they’re pulled from duty, taking all the white expats on the base with them. Joe and Christopher agonize over whether to stay or go.
Director Michael Caton-Jones (Basic Instinct 2) isn’t afraid to get raw with this BBC production. Unlike 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, a glossier film that mined the same tragedy, Beyond the Gates shows you the slaughter and the carnage that lines the streets. You hear stories of babies getting beaten to death; there are close-ups of the surrounding Hutus’ machetes, dripping with fresh blood. When a group of Tutsis tries to flee from the school grounds, you know in your gut what’s coming. But despite the film’s graphic depictions, you don’t become any more involved than that; Wolstencroft’s development of a few African characters is bare-bones, and the rest are just…the rest. Like, apparently, the real victims seemed to most of the world in 1994, the Tutsis here may as well be faceless, while the Hutus are villainous caricatures; add in Dancy’s blank character, and you’re merely watching the watcher. The film has a stasis that no amount of spilled blood can overwrite.
There are a few affecting moments, such as a father’s plea that the UN soldiers spare the Tutsis painful deaths by shooting them all before leaving—but they don’t occur until near the film’s end. In fact, the most poignant part of Beyond the Gates is its closing credits, which flash photos of the significant number of cast and crew members who lived through the genocide and tell how many family members each person lost. The pictures reveal what most of the film itself failed to tell.