Beyond the Gates
Staredown with a Tragic Dilemma

I have always thought that self-sacrifice is the best and most right thing to do. I have all the Scriptures memorized about giving my life for my friends and considering others to be more important than myself. I do my best to practice the Golden Rule, and have always believed that martyrdom is the most noble, selfless act possible.

That is, until I saw Beyond the Gates.

In a stunning drama recounting the horrific events of the Rwandan genocide in April of 1994, Beyond the Gates explores not just the immorality of the mass murders, but the intense, virtually unanswerable questions of morality thrown at the feet of those who are not the direct victims.

Hugh Dancy as Joe in Beyond the GatesJoe (heart-wrenchingly played by Hugh Dancy) is a young man who travels to Rwanda in 1994, hoping to pay his humanitarian debt out of a sense of gratitude for his thus-far relatively easy life. He’s young and optimistic, wanting to help educate the minority children at a Rwandan Catholic school. In short, the majority Hutus are out to rid the world of the “cockroaches”—the Tutsi minority. Joe, along with Father Christopher and other volunteers, fight to keep the violence at bay, but a violent coup d’etat interrupts their work and turns the school into a refugee camp full of frightened Tutsis. In just six short days, 800,000 Rwandan men, women, and children will be violently slaughtered—mostly by machete or beating—in an attempted (but unsuccessful) total genocide.

The film has its technical weaknesses—a low budget clearly influenced the sound editing, which was incredibly frustrating throughout the movie. Background noise, English spoken with British, French, African, and Belgian accents, and my own ignorance of any of the backstory made understanding and comprehending people’s words virtually impossible, particularly in the first half of the film. Also distracting was the camera movement, which lacked fluidity and bordered on dizzying a couple of times.

But back to self-sacrifice. My thoughts on this were challenged so deeply that it kept me awake at night for awhile—and I have yet to reach a solid answer. In the movie (as in the actual historical event), Joe has worked closely with Father Christopher (an awe-inspiring performance by John Hurt—the first ever when I’ve seen him really smile) for several months before the coup. When the Belgian U.N. troops who have been guarding the refuge/school are called to relocate, effectively leaving the Tutsis to die at the hands of the murderous Hutus, they are willing to take others with them—others, that is, as long as they are white Europeans. Absolutely no Africans are allowed to escape the impending slaughter.

Thus the conundrum: Does Father Christopher, whose faith has been broken by the days of terror, stay behind with the Rwandan people he has served for decades? Would leaving to preserve his own life help them? Or would it look like betrayal and abandonment? But then, what good would dying with them do? It would not save a single life, and his death would prevent him from helping anyone anymore. He’s not ancient, he’s in relatively fine physical shape—wouldn’t his life be better spent surviving, living long enough to help the Rwandans pick up the pieces and try to restore some semblance or stability?

And then there’s Joe—on a mission to assuage the guilty gratitude he feels over his privileged upbringing. What good would his death do? Would staying behind and dying with the Rwandan Tutsis be more beneficial than leaving to go help others? Would his death accomplish anything more than a demonstration of solidarity? And, if he did leave, would the sense of abandonment and betrayal follow him, doggedly, for the rest of his life?

These are the questions that left me gasping in the dark as the credits rolled. And even after talking it out with my husband/soulmate who accompanied me to the screening, I still don’t have the answer. What would I do? Would I leave out of cowardice and fear, trying to convince myself I could do more and better work for these people alive than dead? Would I stay behind?

I don’t know. What I do know is that as director Michael Caton-Jones presents the terrible history of these appalling events, he plunges the audience into a palpable abyss of ethical considerations, leaving us with only our ideas and our thoughts and our beliefs to wrestle through. For me, Caton-Jones’ work is the machete that cleaves bone from flesh, separating the sinews into ugly lumps of mere potential strength with no solid support. Ultimately, he presents a painful history, made all the more profound when, at the end, 800,000 people are violently murdered; certain races are saved; and we are left wondering what we would do if we were in Joe’s or Father Christopher’s shoes, and what, if anything, is “right.”

Beyond the Gates is rated R “for strong violence, disturbing images and language.” That’s certainly fair, though it’s safe to guess that the upcoming Grindhouse will also be rated R; and really, that’s no fair comparison. It’s almost absurd, really.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jenn attended a promotional screening of Beyond the Gates.