"Beyond the Gates," a BBC production about Rwanda that opens March 16, marks the latest of a series of films about genocide. It follows recent pictures like 2004's "Hotel Rwanda," the first to dramatize the 1994 massacres in Rwanda; "Screamers," a documentary released at the end of last year about rock band System of a Down's efforts to publicize the Armenian genocide; and "God Grew Tired of Us," a documentary about the Lost Boys of Sudan, which debuted in January in the United States.
Distributed domestically by IFC Films, "Beyond the Gates" takes its title from a Buddhist proverb that "every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell." While it may not be the first film made about genocide or about Rwanda, it presents a much more authentic world than we have seen before, from the barebones Christian missionary school to the backwoods medical supply store to the inescapable trail of blood flowing from an empty building.
As producer David Belton, who was a journalist in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, said in a phone call from England, "We wanted to make sure that due honor was being done to the experience."
Belton said the most crucial decision was to film "Beyond the Gates" in Rwanda, not on a Hollywood sound set or even in another African country.
"To do it anywhere else would have been an insult" to the people of Rwanda, he said.
In addition to shooting "Beyond the Gates" in the East African nation, Belton and director Michael Caton-Jones, best known for genre pictures like "Basic Instinct 2" and "Rob Roy," chose numerous survivors of the genocide as members of the cast and crew. At the end of the film, each one receives a biographical note, indicating relatives who were murdered.
Belton, who co-wrote the original story with Richard Alwyn, and screenwriter David Wolstencroft focus on the characters of Father Christopher, played by veteran actor John Hurt, and Joe Connor, a young idealist played by newcomer Hugh Dancy, who educate Rwandan children about Jesus and secular subjects like geography.
The student refugees in "Beyond the Gates" are joined at their school by a U.N. peacekeeping force. But where Nick Nolte's Belgian colonel in "Hotel Rwanda" makes no attempt at a French accent, the Belgian captain in "Beyond the Gates" fits the part. It is not just the accent of Captain Delon, played by Dominique Horwitz, but also his severe aspect, which is convincing. He is clearly conflicted about his orders, which are not to shoot and not to intervene even though innocent people on the other side of the gates are being butchered by machetes.
Captain Delon remarks that his family shielded Jews during the Holocaust. With bitterness and regret, he says, "I was always proud of that," as he takes a drag on his cigarette.
Belton, whose journalistic forays took him to Bosnia, Nigeria and South Africa as well as Rwanda, said that there are "tragic similarities" between the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, in which roughly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists.
However, Belton does point out one difference -- the Rwandan genocide "took place everywhere and everyone was involved. Neighbors fell on neighbors. Husbands in some cases killed their wives and children. No one was taken to the woods or the paddy fields [as in Cambodia]."
Instead, in Rwanda, murder occurred "on every street and every hilltop. It happened wherever you looked," he added.
Such ubiquitous violence is shown in "Beyond the Gates," in which the genocide occurs not in a "full-on, in-your-face, Hollywoodized" way, but rather in oblique bursts that are "quick ... fleeting, and you move on," Belton said.
Some may question using the point of view of a white character, Hugh Dancy's Connor, in a film about the genocide of Africans. But whites were present at the tragedy, includimg Red Cross workers, missionaries, teachers and journalists.
A more valid criticism of "Beyond the Gates" may be that all the principal characters have names like Christopher, Joe, Marie and Judas, all of which come freighted with the obvious tag of symbolism. Nor does Hugh Dancy's teacher vary his reaction whenever he witnesses a brutality. Even if Dancy might shudder a bit too routinely, Hurt's performance as a Jesus-like priest is remarkable for its range. His face is etched with a mixture of compassion, world-weariness and strength. From the ease with which he puts on the priestly vestments to the denouement when he tricks a Hutu thug named Judas so that the children can escape, Hurt seems born for the part. That is not surprising given that his father was in the clergy.
"Beyond the Gates" is a grisly and sanguinary film, but it is not only about brutality. The film will move audiences, especially as one watches Father Christopher sacrifice himself for humanity.
"Beyond the Gates" opens at select theaters on March 16. For more information, visit beyondthegates-movie.com.