Some of these pieces are a lot harder to write than others. Sometimes it’s because I have a lot to say, maybe too much, and I’m struggling to organize and articulate it. Sometimes the movie is so confusing that I don’t know how to begin to describe it, let alone then analyze or write intelligently about it. Sometimes I just never got into the movie, and I’m a little embarrassed that I wasn’t paying enough attention to have many thoughts at all about it.
And once in a while the intensity of the subject matter takes me places emotionally that are so unsettling, that I don’t know that I want to remain there, and explore there, long enough to figure out what I think and feel and commit it to writing.
Turtles Can Fly took me there. Maybe Ghosts. Maybe Tsotsi. A handful of others.
And now Beyond the Gates. I had to wait some time after seeing the movie to write this essay, because in the interim I shied away every time I tried to revisit the emotions enough to write about the film.
The movie is set at a technical college run by a Catholic priest (John Hurt, who’s really good as usual) in Kigali, Rwanda in 1994. Of course that means it’s about the horrific Rwandan genocide.
The movie is based on a real incident, but evidently fictionalized quite a bit. Hurt and the other main character—a young, idealistic teacher also from England—are composite characters. But even that may be stretching it. One item I came across in reading about the movie said that the school where the incident took place in real life was not run by whites, in which case those characters are invented from whole cloth rather than being composites of multiple real people.
When the violence reaches such levels that it’s clear the Hutu militias and their frenzied civilian allies are massacring every Tutsi they can get their hands on, hundreds of Tutsi people from the area gather on the grounds of the school, which also is where a United Nations contingent of Belgian soldiers has set up a makeshift headquarters.
The Belgians have strict orders to monitor the situation but not to intervene. They interpret this to mean they can use lethal force to defend the school grounds and the people within, but otherwise cannot do anything about the mayhem outside. Mobs of Hutu encircle the school but do not attack, unless any Tutsi are foolish enough to leave the grounds and make a run for it.
The priest and the teacher (and a BBC reporter and occasional other whites) do venture out here and there for various reasons, giving them (and us) a taste of the holocaust engulfing the country. There are multiple scenes—not for the faint of heart—of people being hacked to death with machetes.
The film manifests a righteous indignation against those who could have intervened militarily and chose not to, from the Belgian U.N. troops already present there, to the French U.N. troops shortly sent there to evacuate foreigners from the country, to the U.N. itself, and to the world community as a whole.
And its accusations do seem compelling. It’s one thing if we’re talking about absolute pacifists, but if you’re of the 99% plus of the human population that believes it is sometimes justified to combat evil with evil, if you’re going to have a military at all, it’s hard to imagine a clearer no-brainer situation than this for military intervention.
Indeed international law even requires countries that have the wherewithal to stop genocide to do so.
Which makes truly disgusting the clips of U.S. officials carefully avoiding saying the word “genocide” (preferring “genocidal acts”) so as to give themselves some sort of legalistic cover for inaction. As if an obligation is not generated by genocide itself, but only by using the word.
For that matter, the U.N. troops on the ground in effect are following orders that are contrary to international law. So, yes, their mission was to monitor the situation rather than enforce a certain outcome, but when that situation becomes a genocidal one, that limitation is out the window legally. If acting against the genocide constitutes disobeying orders, then they have an obligation to disobey orders.
So Beyond the Gates is very effective in presenting that moral issue. It’s also very effective in creating an emotionally compelling story about the characters involved in this one little corner of the genocide.
Hurt and his young assistant face the kind of moral dilemmas that few people (thankfully) experience in a lifetime. In the most extreme of circumstances, their courage, their principles, and their faith are tested. They are sometimes but not always heroic in their choices, and even when they are not, they are no worse than there are any realistic grounds to expect I or most viewers would be in their shoes.
So purely as a character study of these individuals, the movie is a clear success.
Yet there are also aspects of the film that are criticizable.
One is the very fact that it uses the common device of putting Westerners at the center of the action in order to make the story more interesting for Western audiences. It is an understandable, but not thereby justified, ethnocentrism.
Related to this, the Africans are reduced to simplistic types. The bad guys are mostly just undifferentiated members of frenzied mobs. The few that are allowed some individuality are simply evil, like the official who comes around before the genocide seeking to “help” by finding out all he can about how many Tutsi are at the school.
Whereas the Tutsi are uniformly noble, trusting, childlike innocents.
Not that that depiction doesn’t lead to some dramatically effective moments, the most heart-wrenching of such being when an elder spokesperson for the Tutsi trapped at the school formally requests that the U.N. soldiers gun them down en masse so that they can have a less terrifying, less painful death than awaits them at the hands of the machete-wielding Hutu.
Another criticism is that the movie also ignores all the domestic and international historical context and political issues, beyond that one issue of the rest of the world being criminally negligent in not using military force to combat the genocide.
Most notably, these kinds of tribal and ethnic rivalries didn’t spring up out of nowhere, and aren’t just some permanent fact of life in Africa. They were routinely, purposely, created and sustained by European imperialists following classic “divide and rule” strategies. The very categories of Hutu and Tutsi are vague and ambiguous, and were altered at will by Europeans in whatever ways kept the native people in a state of rivalry and conflict with each other.
So it’s not just a matter of Africans being naturally bloodthirsty primitive folks given to killing each other for no reason.
Which is not to say the people committing the genocide somehow bear no responsibility for their actions, but the point is while the movie faults whites for not intervening sooner and more forcefully to combat the genocide, their hands are a lot dirtier than that.
Of course the movie oversimplifies the whole Hutu = Evil, Tutsi = Good thing. In real life, the Tutsi sometimes murdered Hutu, sometimes exercised power irresponsibly, etc. Not saying there’s an equivalence, that the Tutsi were ever guilty of something akin to the 1994 genocide by the Hutu, but it’s not like the Tutsi are a uniformly nonviolent, dignified, heroic people. Judging from the movie, you’d think they’re an entire race of Dalai Lamas, but, uh, no.
Also, you don’t pick up from the movie how much violence there was of Hutu against Hutu, because the genocidal Hutu not only sought to kill all the Tutsi, but also any Hutu who didn’t go along with the genocide.
Imagine, for instance, that the White Power wing of the Republican party became powerful enough to try to massacre all the black people in the U.S. It isn’t just black people they’d be in conflict with, but all the white people who don’t favor genocide. No matter how much racial strife there is in the U.S., it’s unimaginable that there will ever be a time when 100% of one race favors massacring all members of another race. There will always be plenty of intraracial violence in a situation like that as well as the interracial violence.
No doubt one could also question the depiction in this movie of the role of the Catholic Church (or Western religions in general) in Africa as an idealistic source of goodness and hope and education.
But aside from the movie arguably being oversimplified, overly indulgent of Western sensibilities, etc., Beyond the Gates is well worth seeing and thinking about. As noted, out of all these movies I’ve written about so far, it is near the very top in terms of how powerful an emotional impact it had on me.