Which is more astonishing: that filmmakers are still churning out movies exploring vast real-life African tragedies primarily by looking at how they traumatized a few angsty whites? Or that early 2007 would, within the span of a few weeks, see the release of two such films that are actually effective and affecting? Like Amazing Grace, Beyond The Gates (released last year in its native Britain under the title Shooting Dogs) is a difficult sell because of the way it clutches its privileged white perspective. But from any perspective, the story it tells is so dramatic, so riveting, that it's impossible to maintain any judgmental distance.
Beyond The Gates opens in the Rwandan capital of Kigali in April 1994, shortly before militant groups of ethnic Hutus began a systematic slaughter of some 800,000 of their minority Tutsi rivals. The film skips the pertinent tribal history, instead concentrating on daily life at a Catholic school run by weathered priest John Hurt and chipper teacher Hugh Dancy. When the Hutu government starts collecting Tutsi names and addresses, impromptu military roadblocks appear, and the heavily armed U.N. observation squad billeted at the school gets tense, Hurt and Dancy take notice, but no action, until thousands of Tutsis arrive at the gates, begging for sanctuary. Over the U.N. team's protests, Hurt takes them in, and as chanting militants slowly surround the school and begin a horrifying waiting game, the tension ramps up to choking levels.
Dancy is the film's theoretical heart, as a self-satisfied altruist who finds his good intentions put to the most extreme tests. But Hurt steals scenes with a brilliantly nuanced character, a man bitter enough to make every line delivered to his peers a challenge or an accusation, yet experienced enough to present those challenges with an ingratiating politesse that only cracks in extremis. Director Michael Caton-Jones (Basic Instinct 2) achieves an in-the-moment reality that makes the action chilling and the anticipation of action monumentally oppressive, but the script gives almost none of the actual victims faces, voices, or names.
Given Beyond The Gates' finger-pointing attitude toward the U.N. and world officials who refused to intervene in the massacre—and given the many Tutsi survivors who crewed this film, as the mesmerizing closing credits reveal—it seems like the filmmakers should know better than to dismiss so many Rwandans as unworthy of notice, except as a squalling crowd in the background.