Beyond the Gates (2007)
Screenplay by David Wolstencroft; story by Richard Alwyn and David Belton
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones
The Power of Decision
What would you risk to make a difference?
By: Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP
Life often seems to be made up of the numerous yet somewhat unimportant choices made on a daily basis. Yet, when faced with life-changing events, our inner spontaneous response echoes how we live the insignificant moments. Have you ever considered what you would do when faced with tragedy and the feeling of inability to make any difference in a complex situation?
This is the heart of the dilemma that a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Christopher (John Hurt) faces while finding himself in the midst of the Rwandan genocide in the movie, Beyond the Gates. This is a film that tests the audience in their deepest consciousness about social issues and the responsibility we have toward one another as members of the human family. It challenges each viewer to consider how those daily decisions can have an impact on the lives of others for good or for ill.
In the movie, Fr. Christopher is a seasoned missionary operating the Ecole Technique Officelle (ETO) school in Kigali, Rwanda. A young idealistic teacher named Joe (Hugh Dancy) comes to Rwanda to help at the school to try to make a difference in the lives of the Rwandans. Fr. Christopher shows signs of discouragement about the impending political troubles and is at the point of nearly losing his faith in his ministry. He tells Joe, “I always had hope. It’s all we ever had. Now we’re running dry.” When the Hutus threaten the lives of all the Tutsis, the people come to the gates of the school. Fr Christopher shelters them, but all the while knowing there is nothing he can do to stop the tragedy from unfolding. The UN soldiers at first protect the grounds of the school, but when the UN pulls out, full-scale slaughter of over 2500 Tutsis on the grounds of the Ecole takes place. Fr Christopher & Joe have to make the choice of whether to leave with the UN or stay with the Rwandan people. Fr Christopher stays, saying to Joe, “My heart is here. My soul. If I leave, I think I may not find it again.”
Because Fr Christopher stays, he heroically helps some children, including the young woman, Marie (Clare-Hope Ashitey) onto a truck before the Hutus make their way through the school gates. He is stopped by renegades and questioned. All the while, Marie helps the children out of the back of the truck and leads them to escape through the woods. They all survive the genocide. As Fr Christopher distracts the soldiers by offering them genuine Christian love, he is shot in the chest, falls to the ground and sees the children escaping. He surrenders his life for the people he served for so many years.
Joe, too, must make a decision. When he chooses to leave with the UN soldiers, Marie comes to find him in England years later and asks, “Why did you leave us?” He tells her, “I was afraid to die.” Fear of death is an emotion that affects every human being. Who at one time or another is not afraid to die? Hugh Dancy said, about his character’s decision, “the movie is not meant to be giving people direction, but causing them to ask that question of themselves.”
I am one of those people from the Western world who knew very little of what was going on in Rwanda in 1994. The news was confusing, the information scarce. Why did governments of powerful countries turned a deaf ear to the cries of the Rwandan people? Was it because we simply did not want to hear of such a barbaric tragedy and realize that our governments and the United Nations avoided involvement? I remember feeling helpless and asking myself, “What can I do?” The answer, as the director Michael Caton-Jones points out, is to, “do something.” He said, “As filmmakers, we could do what we could do. We could raise consciousness.”
The producer, David Belton, was working as a broadcast journalist in Rwanda at the time of the genocide explained why he chose this story to put into film. He says, “It was the most incomprehensible and therefore you couldn’t find the answers. As a journalist I could never find any answers.” He said the genocide was an, “unbelievably important and ignored event that people just didn’t know about it. For that reason it needed to be told.”
Caton-Jones shares his reasons for deciding to leave Hollywood to find a project that would fulfill him. He says the reason he did Beyond the Gates was to, “shine a light on something that happened. I changed when I was in Rwanda. I understood on a deeper level and became passionate to get as accurate as I could and the responsibility I had to the memory that went on there and the people I was meeting there. I remember that the people of Rwanda, when I told them I didn’t know what happened, they said, ‘then you must tell people.’ I felt a responsibility to get it right, to get it as best I could.”
Hugh Dancy hopes that, “anybody who watches the film that it does affect them, that it transports them into the middle of these event, like a flash into consciousness.”
The film raises the question, “How can my daily decisions have a lasting effect upon humanity?” As human beings, we have a responsibility toward history as well as toward future generations. This is the heart of Catholic social teaching. Unless we have the courage to uphold the dignity of the human person now in our age, future ages will not have these convictions modeled to them. Our ability to work for peace in our personal lives, our homes, our workplace, our community is what makes a difference. We can only change ourselves. We can only make decisions now that respect human dignity, promote peace and challenge us to live lives that can break the chain of violence, hatred and war. In this way, we can make a difference. I can make a difference. Beyond the Gates has made a difference.