I think that by now, we should all feel a little sick of the “idealistic young European finds out that people are dying in Africa” film. Even the best-intentioned of these movies is, in reality, a total Western sham. Like sugar in our coffee, we can only take the black when it is lightly tempered with white. So we prop up these true stories of horrifying African genocide with fake stories of charismatic Londoners who come one day to teach, and then slowly begin to learn. When all this chap’s new local buddies who obsequiously speak English with him start dying by the shipload, he makes the tough decision to stay and “help the people” in “any way he can.” Often that means teaming up with a white female reporter who loses her cynicism just long enough to “get the story out.” Keep in mind, if a phrase is highlighted by quotations like those up above, it means that everybody understands how melodramatically stupid it is. My point is not that these films are bad, necessarily; the information and perspective they attempt to give is an honest message to all of us to not stand by and conveniently ignore while atrocities are taking place. The problem I have is that when we admit that adding a white character is necessary for us to relate to a story, we are really admitting that we don’t actually care.
Beyond the Gates, also known as Shooting Dogs, was actually produced in 2005, presumably before Leonardo DiCaprio or James McAvoy ever glycerined their eyes and proclaimed: “Gee, war is hell.” For some reason, this film has languished in post-production and has just recently been brought straight-to-DVD without much fanfare. Personally, I feel that the explanation for why this film was not trudged out there with the others was not lack of interest or star power, but rather the subtle but palpable Yay-Christianity doctrine it is selling. Many examples of this fact arise, not the least of which is that both its heroes are teachers in a Catholic school for Africans. While the subject of ethnic tension and slaughter of innocent Tutsi by Hutu is delved into (this film has no problem taking sides), the religious question is never explored. Rather, we are led to believe that the good Africans are always good Christians, and the evil, machete-wielding sadists stopped attending mass long ago. Unfortunately, this kind of non-secular pandering has been known to divide movie audiences at least in half, and as such, will not be seen in theaters until sometime after Judgment Day.
We find ourselves in Rwanda circa 1994, a time when a tenuous UN-sanctioned peace exists between the majority Hutu government and the minority Tutsi people. The Tutsi people live as blacks once did in the 1950s-technically equal under the law, but with limited social freedom. Young Tutsi children attending the local Christian school are made fun of and victimized by Hutu children, who have been taught from birth to despise them. Dashing young professor Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy) is a mentor to these kids, and his clean-cut British charm is made evident to us right away as he sashays around the dusty African countryside shooting winning smiles at the young girls, and cracking wise to his fellow Western comrades. Dancy plays the part with the necessary amounts of toothy charisma and fear-inspired empathy. He, like all the characters in the film, is just doing his job. Unfortunately, that means sacrificing a lot of faceless Africans for the sake of our comfort.
Also central to the story is Father Christopher (John Hurt), a Catholic missionary who runs the school with all Jesus’s love. He is a true believer, who is never short with an answer when a curious Rwandan child questions the logic of the Good Book. In the opening scenes, Father Christopher and Joe serve as a well-oiled tag team, with Joe providing a few humorous quips about the idea of “eating the body of Jesus,” and Father Christopher swooping in to fill in the blanks and remind us that hey, this stuff isn’t funny. We follow Joe and Christopher each at times, as both characters must deal in their own way with the coming political turmoil. Their past experience and personal worldviews are presented to us through their interactions with Marie (Claire Hope-Ashitey), a Tutsi girl who loves God, but wonders sometimes about why he lets awful things happen to her all the time.
With the scenario and persons in place, we can now begin the upheaval. One day after mass, the short-wave radio informs the school that the Hutu President has been killed in a plane crash. Father Christopher, the longtime African citizen, worries about a coup, since he has seen this all before. Almost immediately after the word is spoken, machine guns are heard in the distance, and Joe is made to hold the pee in his pants long enough to round up the young ones for some encouraging banter. This is his first coup, and something he admits he never got to witness in his mansion in Wales. Everything happens fast for Joe, as his best Hutu friend Francois (David Gyasi) mysteriously disappears (he comes back later, trust me), his little protégé Marie seeks his guidance, and his British reporter colleague Rachel (Nicola Walker) is the only one who can help the fleeing Tutsis.
For Father Christopher, the fight is squarely with the polite Belgians of the U.N. Led by the stalwart Capitain Delon (Dominique Horwitz), the U.N. forces stationed at the school are under direct orders to “monitor the peace,” and not to fire upon anyone who has not fired at them. This becomes difficult for Christopher as wannabe Tutsi refugees are hacked with machetes right out front of the school gates. The machete is the Hutu weapon of choice, and this movie wants you to know that people were being hacked with them a lot. I appreciate this, both for the respectable honesty and the respectable violence. You can’t eat sausage if you won’t watch how it’s made. The downside of this, however, is that we get a multitude of scenes where crazy aviator-wearing Hutus are cutting up a baby while poor, helpless white guys cling tearfully to the rusty chain links.
The span of Beyond the Gates takes us not through the entire coup, but only just the part of it that Joe and Christopher are involved in. Joe tries to get the message out to the BBC, while Father Christopher tries to keep his faith and everybody else’s among the chaos. In one innard-churning climactic scene, we are told at once that Delon and his U.N. peacekeepers are splitting town, and there is essentially no hope for the Tutsis in the camp. Joe frets about this, and tells Christopher there is nothing more they can do. Christopher then looks at Joe with a pair of shrink-wrapped eyes and says: “We can make sure these kids get their first holy communion. That’s what we can do for them.” Yeah, that’ll help a lot. Thanks, dude.
This film is not bad, and at times, it even transcends its own clichéd foundation. Contrary to my prediction, Joe does not have sex with his female reporter friend. Instead, they share a very well-scripted moment in which they admit to each other that all they really feel for these Africans is white guilt. They both can leave and go shop at Barney’s any time they want, and they know it. For real truth-telling in these kinds of films, it doesn’t get any better than that. Ultimately, though, the film is weighed down by its trite take on the genocide. In a place and time where pregnant women were being nailed to trees, I really don’t give a crap how Joe O’Connor is feeling. I also couldn’t care less that Father Christopher’s unwavering love of Christ helps him survive and that he finds a way to teach that love to the horrified sons and daughters of the dead. Not only do I not care about it, I don’t believe it.
There is a tidy amount of extra stuff on the Beyond the Gates DVD for those who appreciate it. It is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and features Spanish and French subtitles. Oddly enough, both the “Setup” and the “Special Features” sections of the film contain the two separate commentaries for this film. This means that the makers of this disc really want us to sit and listen to what the filmmakers have to say. It turns out they have a lot to say. They are, after all, a group of dusty old Brits.
The first commentary on the disc is that of director Michael Caton-Jones, who comes at us from the logistical end, giving us information on the set of the film (which is on-location in Rwanda) and the staging of the many inflatable scenes. Caton-Jones narrates his film like the college professor who you can tell does not want to be there. Frequently he pauses to smack his lips or inhale deeply and audibly through his nose. If you don’t fall asleep, you may get to hear a little information about the normal street life in Kigali.
The second audio piece is done by the duo of writer and producer, David Wolstencroft and David Belton. The two are much livelier than their counterpart, and give a deeper, more personal account of production. Belton is given story credit on the film, and he mentions his experience as a BBC reporter in Africa at the time. It is his firsthand account that became the plotline of this movie. Unfortunately, the two spend most of their session congratulating each other on a job well done, and we soon get the sense that this is how these men feel about their film’s impact. They seem to believe that by simply making this picture, they are helping out in some way. They might be, but it is their smug self-absorption that leaks out onto the screen and singlehandedly creates the Joe O’Connor character.
There is a making-of feature that helps us log some quality face time with the men mentioned above. It takes awhile of these guys’ maudlin yet proud stories of “really being there” before we get to talk to any of the stars, and when we do, it is just more of the same. A new drinking game I came up with for watching behind the scenes material: Shotgun a beer every time an actor says “when I read the script…,” or “I was blown away.”
The last bit of fodder is a very quick PSA-type item detailing the ARC’s (African Recovery Council) efforts to help those who are in need. Tom Brokaw is name-dropped as the founder, but this is the only flaw I can see in this truly altruistic venture. If they see the movie, and they feel personally involved by its end (not likely) they get some numbers they can call. If just one dollar makes it across, it’s worth it. And since it involves Tom Brokaw, it’s got to be classy, right?
Sadly, Beyond the Gates is a transparent effort by white Westerners to thank themselves for caring about Africa. As a film, it is neatly directed, cleanly written, and daintily acted. Everybody does their part to keep this robotic masturbatory effort from looking like a hack job. Nobody in the disc features mentions missionaries or Catholic impact in Rwanda, but the movie is its own advertisement for that. I don’t have a problem with it, but I can safely cite it as a reason for this movie’s miniscule release. People will go to see a powerful issue film in theaters, that’s no problem. But pile Christian guilt on top of that, and people start to wonder if they should go home and watch Primeval.