Beyond the Gates is a BBC film directed by Michael Caton-Jones and based on an eyewitness book by a BBC cameraman about one especially harrowing tragedy of the the Rwandan genocide in the 1990’s. A U.N. peace-monitoring force is encamped at a rural Rwandan technology school presided over by a European Catholic priest, Father Christopher (John Hurt), and his young British collegiate intern-for-a-year, Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), the latter for whom a pretty young Rwandan woman, a student at the school and promising long-distance runner, Marie (Clare-Hope Ashitey), has romantic feelings. Shortly after the opening, the catalytic plane crash killing the Hutu leader occurs off-camera, and the country-wide butchering of Tutsis begins.
Hundreds of terrified Tutsis as well as a handful of Europeans are permitted through the gates of the fenced-in school to take refuge on the campus. A murderous crowd of hooting machete-wielding Hutus forms outside the gates, not quite daring to attack the armed U.N. force, whose rules of engagement do permit firing in self-defense (though not otherwise). But the shouting and taunting thugs trot about Out There confidently like hyenas. Eventually, French military forces arrive to escort the Europeans out. Father Christopher and Joe decide to wait behind with the trapped Tutsis.
Eventually, the U.N. force commander is ordered to have his force withdraw from the campus, drive to the nearby airport in a gun-ready convoy, and fly out of the country. At the last moment, Joe decides to leave with the U.N. contingent; Father Christopher, reminding of Graham Greene’s outlaw priest in The Power and the Glory, remains. As the U.N. commander and his force prepare to retreat, the commander refuses to shoot the pleading Tutsis who would prefer a quick bullet to being hacked to death. Father Christopher succeeds in smuggling out at the tail of the U.N. convoy and under the canvas over the bed of a school truck some of the trapped children and youngsters, including Clare, taking them to the jungle where they go into hiding; nearly all the other Tutsis, now defenseless on the breached school grounds, are murdered (mercifully, off camera). Father Christopher, while helping the Tutsi children and teens escape, is shot to death at a Hutu roadblock by one of his former close Rwandan friends.
Joe ends up a teacher at a quiet, remote school in Great Britain. Clare manages to get out of Rwanda alive–there is a stunning shot of her running alone down a long, deserted dirt road after her escape into the wilds–and, five years later, tracks Joe down in Great Britain. Seated together on a bench in a beautiful sylvan setting on Joe’s campus, he, still in shock, confesses he left her and the others behind to be slaughtered because he was afraid to die. She, now calmly accepting of his fear, muses that they must both make the best of the rest of their lives. No resurgent romantic stirrings between them are hinted. And it seems certain she will never return to Rwanda. Joe agrees with her that his school is “hard to locate”: Joe, forever disillusioned, has taken refuge; and Clare will remain in that same refuge, Great Britain. You sense that she and Joe will not meet again.
Movies being an entertainment business, we’re not surprised by the tradition of African films from Trader Horn through the Tarzan series to King Solomon’s Mines to The African Queen to Zulu to The Naked Prey to Out of Africa and, these days, Blood Diamond, The Interpreter, The Constant Gardener and the like. I guess Africa could sue for misrepresentation. Will the real Africa please stand up? First it was the Dark Continent of barbarism, with Europeans lost in the jungle and hearing drums closing in. Then it was Cooper’s Natty Bumppo and his indigenous buddy transported to the Congo. Then it was colonialists, good and bad, in various Hollywood story lines. Now it’s the guilty Europeans and Americans. Yet Africa remains largely an “exotic” setting in the movies; besides, we’re tired of those Arizona buttes and Wyoming mountains, so Africa is a change of scene for the old adventure stories in these Global times.
I’m guessing the estimable and indispensable Samantha Power–we must have her voice and similar ones in every moment–would not like Beyond the Gates. It only half-heartedly, almost as a tired reflex, blames the U.N., Western powers et al. for “allowing” the tragic Rwandan reversion to what Freud says is perhaps our natural state of savagery transcended at any moment only by virtue of the holding-together of Yeats’s centre of civilization, civilization being the triumph over nature (as the glowering Freud, decidedly more the artist than the scientist in a world of not-yet-towering scientists of psychology, essentially puts it and which, I guess, might do as well as most for now as an explanation). In Beyond the Gates the explanatory exhaustion or, perhaps, even modesty, sets the movie apart from the rest of the current set of more-or-less hypocritical pseudo-guilty movies about “Africa.”
A saying from the Buddah provides the title of the film: close to verbatim: “Every human possesses the key to the gates of Heaven; the same key opens the gates of Hell.” It’s a terrible heresy, I know, but I’ve always thought the Buddah is among the greatest in history at a sleight-of-hand to fool us that things we don’t understand about ourselves and our experience are understandable.
Rather, Beyond the Gates strikes me as an honest film about the human condition not limited to Africa but universal. In its sad realism, it helps bring a saving wisdom the price of which may be a dose–take once a decade just before going to bed–of a certain form of realistic disillusionment over the often dishearteningly remote possibilities of redemption. As Tom Paine vitally cautions, “Tyranny, like Hell, is difficult to overcome.” Which is another way of saying that for redemption there must be a Spirit of Civilization in the first place–something vitally sustaining, difficult to imbue, and sometimes seemingly impossible to keep.
Beyond the Gates is all too true.