If they’re filming us, then no one can touch us.
— Joe (Hugh Dancy)
Marie (Claire-Hope Ashitey) likes to run. A student at the École Technique Officielle, she first appears in Beyond the Gates running laps around her classmates. Her teacher Joe (Hugh Dancy) announces with mock sports radio guy excitement: “The crowd goes wild!” This “crowd” includes the head of the Belgian U.N. forces, Capitaine Charles (Delon Dominique Horwitz), and the groundskeeper Francois (David Gyasi), both nodding at Joe’s invisible microphone in order to acknowledge Marie’s talent, grace, and sheer strength of will.
Because this scene is set in Kigali, Rwanda, 1994, you know the tranquility won’t last. Michael Caton-Jones’ 2005 feature considers the same genocide that was the focus of 2004’s Hotel Rwanda. Soon enough, Joe runs into BBC reporter Rachel (Nicola Walker), visibly rattled as she orders a beer from an outdoors vendor and lights her cigarette. She’s just come from the Kachira peace rally, she says, and was stunned to see a group of “Hutu thugs” attack the Tutsi demonstrators with machetes. Joe’s eyes go wide. “Shit,” is all he can say.
Minutes later, Beyond the Gates underlines the problem of outsiders’ well-intentioned impotence: in his classroom, Joe attempts to explain communion in response to Marie’s wondering whether Jesus is “inside the bread.” Unable to sort out the simultaneously literal and imaginative aspects of faith, Joe stumbles until he’s “saved” by the priest who presides over the school, Papa Christopher (John Hurt), who appears in the doorway and smoothes over the quandary: “Jesus,” he assures the kids and Joe, “is in everything, in every human heart, everything we see and touch.”
That night, while Joe and the U.N. troops watch soccer on TV, Christopher strolls through the school grounds and hears distant explosions: “something at the airport.” The troops begin to rush around, leaving Joe suddenly alone, his confusion an indication of what’s to come. By the time they learn what’s happening — Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane has gone down, and Hutu militia men have begun their campaign to exterminate the Tutsi “cockroaches” — it’s too late.
(L-R) Hugh Dancy (Joe Connor) and John Hurt (Father Christopher)
As Charles asserts repeatedly, the U.N. mandate is only to “monitor” the peace between Hutus and Tutsis, which emphatically does not include shooting at militia members who haven’t shot at them. He and his men can only maintain the school as a “military base,” not step outside the gates or even protect the 1500 black Rwandan refugees inside. Famously, the U.N. forces are instructed to evacuate the white Europeans, a highly visible sign of the racism underlying the American and European nonintervention (when 40 or so Europeans arrive in a swirl of dust, soon to be evacuated by the U.N peacekeepers, Christopher sighs in disgust, “White man come in big car, make whining noise”). This even when the Hutus assassinate U.N troops: when Christopher wonders at the audacity of such a move, Charles explains the now well-known reasoning: “In Somalia,” he recalls, “Eighteen Americans died: it was enough to force a complete withdrawal.”
In fact, the U.N. will withdraw and the number of dead will expand to over 800,000. But before that, the film offers up a series of dramatic episodes to illustrate how many things go wrong. Its original, more overtly angry title — Shooting Dogs — is drawn from one such scene. Charles asks Christopher to explain to the folks assembled at the school that the U.N. troops will be “shooting dogs” who have gathered just outside the school gate, as they are ripping at bodies left there and causing a ruckus. Charles wants the people inside the gates not to be alarmed at the gunfire. Christopher is appalled, as he’s just returned from an excursion to a nearby convent and found all the nuns raped and slaughtered. How can the Belgians shoot the dogs but not take on the Hutus? “Were [the dogs] shooting at you?” he snarls. “According to your mandate, if you’re going to shoot the dogs, the dogs must have been shooting at you first.” Charles looks miserable, but he has his orders.
Clare-Hope Ashitey (Marie)
Christopher has had it with “orders.” And out of that frustration, he makes a logical jump in the next scene. The only reason his parishioners have been coming to mass, he now reasons, is because they’ve been told to do so. “They just go through the motions without the slightest understanding of what it is they’re engaged in, whether they’re being told to eat a wafer or hack their own flesh and blood to death.” According to this thinking, brutality and inaction result from the same impulse.
Joe embodies the naïvete, powerlessness, and eventual malfeasance of the European “project,” Joe at first imagines that if he can only get the BBC to televise what’s happening, the “world” will come to the Rwandans’ rescue. But when Joe, Rachel, and her cameraman Mark (Jack Pierce) are briefly threatened by Hutus at a roadblock, the young teacher is quite undone by seeing Francois among the bloody blade wielders. “He’s one of them,” he tells Christopher later, his face even paler than usual.
Such understanding of a basic survivalist division into “us” and “them” is devastating for Joe, and articulated even more forcefully by Rachel. While the film shows repeated images of hacking (usually just off-frame or obscured by grasses) as well as bloody children’s bodies (these are plenty visible), she confesses her own racism even as she seems amazed at herself. She remembers that “last year,” in Bosnia, she feels her journalism was “great,” even as she “cried every day.” As she tells Joe, “Every time I saw a dead Bosnian woman, a white woman, I thought, ‘That could be my mom.’ Over here, they’re just dead Africans.” She pauses, then adds, “What a thing to say. We’re all just selfish pieces of work in the end.” Joe looks at her with mouth agape.
Beyond the Gates is predictably focused on white characters’ anxieties and self-realizations. Still, and to its credit, the film never quite grants Joe absolution. His own primary investment is in Marie, whom Christopher early on observes has a “crush” on Joe. Once or twice, as when Joe places his hands on her shoulders to reassure her, his response to this news looks vaguely troubling. It also suggests the unexamined self-interest of Europeans (even those who want badly to “do good”) as they place themselves in relation to their so-called charges, whether students, congregants, or employees. Beyond the Gates doesn’t consider intersections between the Hutus’ monstrous violence and resentment of European colonialism, imperialism, or capitalism. But it does suggest that Joe’s ignorance and sense of privilege, however honorable his intentions, make a dangerous combination.