Why was the Christian media almost silent when Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, another tale of inspiring Christlike courage and sacrifice, reached the big screen?” So asks critic and veteran religious-press watcher Jeffrey Overstreet in his new book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies.
Could there be an analogy to the larger and far more important question of why the Western world was largely silent in the face of the Rwandan genocide itself? In Michael Caton-Jones’s Beyond the Gates, a fictional BBC reporter makes a brutal confession: “When I was in Bosnia, I cried every day. I looked at the white faces of women dead in the gutter and thought, That could be my mother. In Rwanda, I look at the bodies and I think, ‘It’s just dead Africans.’”
Will Beyond the Gates, with its white Christian hero Father Christopher, have an easier time connecting with middle-American Christian culture than Hotel Rwanda, with its African protagonist? If so, audiences will find a rawer, more pitiless film offering less reassurance and more outrage at the diffidence of the Western world in the face of the Rwandan genocide.
Although Beyond the Gates hits American screens more than two years after Hotel Rwanda, the two films were made much closer in time. Both are based on actual events, and there are points of contact between the two stories. (Beyond the Gates opened March 9 in a limited number of U.S. theaters; a wider opening may follow. To find out where it’s playing, go to beyondthegates-movie.com.)
One of the best films of 2004, Hotel Rwanda starred Don Cheadle as a hotel manager who saved thousands of Tutsi refugees by sheltering them at a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Beyond the Gates focuses on a Catholic priest named Father Christopher (John Hurt) and an idealistic young teacher Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy) who offer sanctuary to Tutsi refugees at a Christian school near Kigali.
Father Christopher and Joe, along with BBC reporter Rachel (Nicola Walker), are fictional composites, but the school is real, along with the substance of the events portrayed in the film. In fact, the film was shot on location at the actual school, the École Technique Officielle, with the active involvement of survivors of the genocide among the cast and crew.
Beyond the Gates played abroad in many markets last year under the title Shooting Dogs, a bitterly ironic reference to the wild dogs shot in the street by Belgian U.N. forces near the school, where the U.N. set up a base of operations.
The dogs have been attracted by Tutsi corpses lying at the feet of the Hutu mob surrounding the school, and the U.N. forces decide that the animals constitute a “health risk.” Father Christopher is beside himself over the mendacity of the U.N. forces, which won’t do anything about the murderous mob itself unless directly attacked. “I suppose,” the priest says in a voice dripping with caustic fury, “that the dogs were firing on your men.”
The film’s original name aptly expresses its moral indignation but was apparently felt to limit its market appeal. The new title has the kind of focus-group expansiveness marketers love. In fact, not long ago, the exact same title cropped up in an unrelated film based on a different true story of Christian heroism in the third world, a documentary called Beyond the Gates (or Beyond the Gates of Splendor), based on Elisabeth Elliott’s similarly named memoir.
Although Caton-Jones’s film focuses on its European protagonists, some of its most haunting moments involve the African characters, particularly a young student named Marie (Claire-Hope Ashitey, Children of Men) and a doomed Tutsi father whose chillingly fatalistic acceptance recalls the title of the book that inspired Hotel Rwanda: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.
For the most part, unfortunately, Beyond the Gates doesn’t develop its characters or themes with any depth. Father Christopher is an archetypal Hollywood good priest. He’s wise, compassionate, socially concerned, spiritually insightful, self-sacrificing and indignant in the face of injustice. Joe is the well-intentioned and idealistic outsider, naively hubristic and ultimately too timid to make the difference he desperately wants to.
Essentially, Father Christopher is the voice of Western conscience while Joe is the embodiment of Western guilt. Neither is particularly individualized beyond these roles, and this approach doesn’t result in the most illuminating perspective on the nature of the Rwandan tragedy itself.
Father Christopher is equally concerned with the spiritual and temporal well-being of his flock. He insists on the importance of celebrating Mass and baptizes a newborn baby, but furiously upbraids the Belgian U.N. commanding officer (Dominique Horwitz) for his refusal to take action. Like Clint Eastwood’s priest in Million Dollar Baby, Father Christopher isn’t too pious to drop an F-bomb or two under extenuating circumstances.
Perhaps his best lines come toward the end, as he offers a familiar but worthwhile answer to the perennial question “Where is God in the midst of tragedy?”
His worst comes toward the beginning, when he issues a catechetical howler in response to queries about the nature of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The priest’s “simple” explanation of the Eucharist is occasioned by Joe’s bewildered inability to answer students’ simple questions.
Yet, when the subject turns to the Gospel message, no such confusion results, and a student easily offers a simple and accurate explanation, to Father Christopher’s approval. Perhaps it’s only specifically Catholic beliefs that are confusing.
Beyond the Gates is most worth seeing for its uncompromising portrait of an episode more representative of the Rwandan genocide than the events depicted in Hotel Rwanda. At the same time, Beyond the Gates offers little insight into the Hutu or Tutsi experience, little depth to match the courage of its convictions.
Like The Last King of Scotland, Beyond the Gates has been criticized for approaching an African story through the eyes of white protagonists. I wouldn’t dogmatically reject the possibility of telling a story this way to great effect.
Still, measured against the superior Hotel Rwanda, Beyond the Gates doesn’t make the case that this story is best told from an outside perspective rather than an inside one.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.