'Gates' revisits moral quandary in Rwanda

The 1994 Rwandan genocide is once again the subject of a movie. Even more so than its forerunner "Hotel Rwanda," "Beyond the Gates" is unsparing in its depiction of that terrible time. The hacked-up bodies that we see in graphic close-up by the roadside are only part of the reason why.

The film is about how 2,500 Tutsi refugees were sequestered in the Kigali secondary school Ecole Technique Officielle and subsequently slaughtered when the resident United Nations peacekeeping forces were ordered to leave and whites were evacuated by the French.

The two main protagonists in "Beyond the Gates" are Father Christopher (John Hurt), a Catholic priest who presides over a church located at the school, and Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), a starry-eyed idealist who is spending a year teaching there. Christopher has been in Africa for 30 years and has an intuitive grasp of its politics. When the first rumblings of trouble reach the school, he understands much more than Joe what is in store.

Christopher's outward show of weariness belies his core of activism. His faith is so resolute that he can perform baptisms when the world is a charnel house outside his church doors. Hurt, whose father was a priest and whose brother is a Catholic monk, is extraordinary. Without resorting to either high dudgeon or low sentimentality, he makes goodness palpable. Although he appears to be avidly righteous, Joe is far more riven than Christopher by events. His decision about whether or not to stay behind with the Tutsi refugees is the movie's core dilemma. It lifts the film beyond its docu-drama trappings and into the roiling realm of moral inquiry.

David Belton, one of the film's producers, was working for the BBC in Rwanda in 1994. This may help to explain the authenticity of the project, which was directed by Michael Caton-Jones in Rwanda hiring survivors of the massacre for small roles. The end credits show us still photos of some of them paired with descriptions of their devastating losses, and dwarfs the dramatizations that came before.

The obscenity of the slaughter is compounded by the fact that the West, and the UN in particular, did almost nothing to prevent the massacre of almost a million Rwandans. In one of the most unsettling sequences, UN commander Captain Delon orders the dogs tearing into the corpses outside the school's gates to be shot. But because the UN has not officially ruled what is happening in Rwanda as genocide, he refuses to shoot the Hutu machete wielders even though they have also massacred 10 Belgian soldiers.

At one dire point in the movie, a white BBC newswoman (Nicola Walker) who covered Sarajevo tells Joe that the massacre of whites there was more upsetting to her than the genocide of Rwandans. Caton-Jones and his screenwriter David Wolstencroft don't need to underline the point for us: Skin color played a part in the West's criminal neglect.

I wish "Beyond the Gates" had been more detailed in its political indictments and less eager to portray all Tutsis as saints. Although the events depicted are harrowing, the filmmaking and storytelling are fairly conventional. But in some ways the movie's straightforward style is more appropriate to the horror than a more souped-up approach would have been. With material this strong, sometimes the best thing a filmmaker can do is to stay out of the way. Grade: A–

Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and language.

Violence: 21. Language: 10 strong uses and 9 milder ones. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 10.

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