Film-Forward Review: [BEYOND THE GATES]

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Directed by: Michael Caton-Jones.
Produced by: David Belton, Pippa Cross & Jens Meurer.
Written by: David Wolstencroft, based on a story by Richard Alwyn & David Belton.
Director of Photography: Ivan Strasburg.
Edited by: Christian Lonk.
Music by: Dario Marianelli.
Released by: IFC Films.
Language: English.
Country of Origin: UK/Germany. 110 min. Rated R.
With: John Hurt, Hugh Dancy, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Dominique Horwitz & Nicola Walker.

Set during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Beyond the Gates portrays Africa again through the eyes of idealistic white expatriates from Great Britain, but points a finger not so much at the Hutu perpetrators who planned and quickly carried out the systematic elimination of the Tutsi, but the white world that didn’t stop them.

The Ecole Technique Officielle seems more a tranquil outpost than a United Nations Assistance Mission, as its peacekeeping soldiers lounge around. Dashing Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy) teaches at the secondary school, basking in “the joys of Africa.” Even when an explosion rocks the night, school headmaster Father Christopher (John Hurt) remains complacent after decades of conducting communion classes and lively Africanized services.

However, BBC reporter Rachel (Nicola Walker) notices machetes appearing at “peace rallies,” and the priest sees town officials taking census of where Tutsi live, but the whites are mostly oblivious to the hate radio broadcasts and warnings of a looming calamity. Joe is naively surprised that the school groundskeeper, Francois, a Hutu, would believe anti-Tutsi propaganda. After head lights flash on the gates to reveal thousands of refugees, the rest of the film recreates what happened at the school that week in April.

The key reason to see this depiction of the Rwandan genocide is Ivan Strasburg’s cinematography. Building on his documentary-like fly-on-the-wall style of Bloody Sunday and the urgency of Live from Baghdad, there is much hand-held camera work and footage shot from surreptitious angles, intensified by Christian Lonk’s sharp editing. (Some long shots deliberately manipulate the tension, such as a shaky hand-held sequence down a long dark corridor toward a screaming woman that ends up celebrating life not death.) Vividly filmed in the exact locations where the actions unfolded, three trauma counselors were needed on the set.

Like a disturbingly human reenactment of Hitchcock’s The Birds, first one, then another, then more and more men gather outside the school’s locked entrance, first silent observers but never innocuous, swinging machetes and nail-enforced bats that become more and more vigorously displayed – a startlingly display of mob psychology at work, beyond most representations of fictional riots. Any doubt about the mob’s intentions is dispelled in one of the film’s most shocking scenes, when a few panicking families try to escape out the back of the school and are immediately brutally, casually hunted down.

All these visuals achieve a powerful impact. But the actors are at their best when they don’t have to speechify David Wolstencroft’s wooden dialog (his scripts for the TV spy series Spooks, shown edited in the US as MI-5, had far more crackle). Though “based on a true story,” the characters are mostly types inspired by the actions of real-life individuals. As Joe’s favorite student, Marie has to represent too much in the story – translator, liaison, and Joe’s conscience. (Clare-Hope Ashitey filmed this role before being featured as another hope for the future in Children of Men.) Just with his body language, Dancy beautifully communicates a day by day change from hopeful blue-eyed optimist to a shaken shell, and Hurt movingly transmutes from confident believer to angry cynic to inspired martyr.

The film rages about what these whites should have done, but individual and societal responsibilities get symbolically conflated. While Joe has the presence of mind to seek out TV journalists to cover the Tutsis’ plight, the significance of his do-I-stay-or-do-I-go decision making is overly emphasized. The script does provide complex insight into the awkward role of the UN forces, with less sarcasm than the Bosnian No Man's Land. However, the introductory background on Rwanda leaves out the Belgian colonial responsibility for the tribal tensions.

Ironically, Belgian Captain Delon (Dominique Horwitz), proud his grandparents hid Jews from the Nazis, first ignores instructions not to make the school a safe haven, but then he follows orders from the UN Security Council, which rapidly make irrelevant his peacekeeping mandate, as he unconvincingly insists, “We’re just here to monitor the peace, not to enforce the peace. Our guns are only for self-defense.” He bears the brunt of the anger of the priest, Joe, and refugees, especially when he deems only the feral dogs chomping on bodies a public health hazard worth shooting. (The film was released in England as Shooting Dogs.)

The point of view changes abruptly with the insertion of identical footage used in Sometimes in April of the U.S. State Department spokeswoman fumbling over definitions of “acts of genocide.” Besides no other mention of the political debate and obfuscations going on by Western governments or at the UN, no other context is given for the decision to pull out the beleaguered UN soldiers.

In comparison to other similarly-themed films, Hotel Rwanda is more dramatic, its focus more on individual heroism and less on global politics. With a more historical perspective, Sometimes in April personalizes the enormity of the horrors and the impact on Rwandan society, particularly the important role of surviving witnesses.

Stay through the final scroll of facts to see the photographs of the many crew members and the details on their survival and family losses, which has more impact than the epilog featuring the fictional characters and the final exhortation of “Never again.” Nora Lee Mandel
March 9, 2007



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