For the record, I saw this film under the UK-release titled Shooting Dogs1, and I saw it before I saw Hotel Rwanda. Actually that would have been a better basis for me to review the film on but for better or worse, since then I have actually seen Hotel Rwanda and invariably when I review Beyond the Gates I am obviously drawing oblique comparisons to both films. So I will try in earnest to not make this blog a comparative review but rather focus on Shooting Dogs/Beyond the Gates and why I feel it had such an enormous impact on me2.
So for a while after this movie was released overseas I followed its trail across ti he Atlantic in earnest waiting to see if and when it would get picked up; finally in late 2006 IFC Pictures purchased the US distribution rights and the film was finally released in March 2007.
Synopsis and Review
It would be another six months before it was distributed on DVD. I do not have the sales figures on how well it is performing but I suspect that any trouble it is having finding an audience in the States is due in great part to the success and exposure its “counterpart” Hotel Rwanda had.
Based on true events, the setting of the film is in Ecole Technique Officielle, a school in the vicinity of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. We enter the action a few days before the atrocities (100 days long) start in April, 1994.
What ensues is the madness that actually took place at the school. It is a credit to the film that I felt the chaos, confusion and tension that must have been thick in the air under unfathomable circumstances. Many of the characters are faced with the ultimate choices, life death and sacrifice. In some ways how it all plays out with the characters is predictable but still meaningful for us to possibly wrap our heads around what we are bearing witness to on screen.
One of the criticisms launched at Beyond the Gates is because the chief protagonists of the story are non-African (as opposed to the central characters of Hotel Rwanda). Personally I did not find this much of a distraction; their interaction with the natives of the country was not condescending or belittling in any way. If anything, they were symbolic of the Westerner’s witnessing (or not) of the events going on around them.
From a cinematic perspective, there was a gritty, almost documentary element to the filming – that may very well be a function of the budgetary restrictions placed by Michael Caton-Jones. Much to his credit he executes it very well.
The acting was solid and believable – each of the main characters are fictionalized. In hindsight, this could be why some people were not taken with the film in the way they were able to connect with the characters in Hotel Rwanda.
With that in mind, John Hurt beautifully portrayed the world weariness and at the same time determination and faith of the head of the school. His contrasting protagonist is the young schoolteacher played by Hugh Dancy. Whether by design or by effect of acting, he pulls off the idealism, naiveté and finally shock and horror of exactly what was going on. Lastly as the student Marie, we have Claire-Hope Ashitey in her feature film debut. While Mr. Hurt and Dancy are our Western conduits, Ms. Ashitey serves as a symbol of the youth and innocence lost when senseless, large scale violence takes place.
Another feature of the realism captured in this film is the fact that many of the crew members and some of the actors were actual survivors of the events at the school. When you watch the DVD extras for the film, you get the sense that while this may have been traumatizing it also went a way to heal some of the wounds that the survivors were left to bear. There is one story about an incident that occurred during the filming in which the townspeople mistook a scene taking place for an actual event; this event was unfortunate but should serve to reiterate that well after the events have passed (10 years at the time the film was being shot) the trauma and ghosts are still alive and present.
It seems like we get these conflict/topical films in bunches; it happened in the late 1970s with The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Coming Home,etc; in the 1980s the trend was more revisionist with Casualties of War, Platoon and the like. It is inevitable that barring any major change in how the world responds to the ongoing crisis in Darfur or other conflict regions that we look back with a cynical and new set of eyes, there will be a throng of those topical films as well.
In the case of the events that occurred over the course of 100 days in Rwanda we have the two films that I mentioned previously; in addition there are:
Ghosts of Rwanda
Sometimes in April
Keepers of Memory
Shake Hands with the Devil
For a topic that the world largely ignored while it was actually happening, this is a relatively substantial filmography; I suspect that in the canon of Rwanda-genocide films, Beyond the Gates will hold its own as an earnest effort to portray one piece in the larger tragedy of those 100 days.
1 This title is a specific reference to a pivotal scene in the movie
2 Yeah I know it is not a real word,