One need not be one of those bloated bloviators of talk radio to rush to the judgment that political correctness and ethnic sensitivity can be carried to comic, even tragic, extremes at times. Philip Roth, an author of solid liberal credentials, explored the dark side of planet P.C. in his splendid novel of 2000, The Human Stain. (In 2003 it was released as a less successful film by Robert Benton.) In the story, Coleman Silk, a senior professor at a prestigious university, checks his class list before his final exam. As he calls out the names on the official roster from the dean’s office, Silk discovers the names of two students who had never appeared in class during the entire semester. In an attempt to make an academic joke about his virtual students, he remarks that the two phantoms must be “spooks.” As it turns out, they are African-American athletes. The P.C. police interpret the remark as an ethnic slur, and Professor Silk’s distinguished career is summarily ended.
But before we denounce the campus watchdogs for their hysterical overreaction to Professor Silk’s innocent attempt at humor, it might be worth a moment’s reflection on the history that often prompts such hair-trigger responses among academics. The childhood rhyme states: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” Adults know better. Name-calling can have lethal consequences. And when names are applied to entire classes of people, the results can be catastrophic. A malicious name for a group erases individuality. A person becomes simply one of “them,” a lower phylum of humanity. Names cement prejudices, and prejudices affect behavior. They lead to class distinctions, intolerance, segregation, forced relocation, slavery and even genocide. The progression passes without notice and builds its own internal momentum plunging otherwise civilized people into an abyss of killing without hesitation or remorse.
Beyond the Gates revisits the 1994 massacres in Rwanda. As the film opens, Marie (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young student at the mission school, has just demonstrated her distance-running skill and is hailed as an Olympic heroine by her classmates. As she pauses to catch her breath, several boys pelt her with stones and call her “cockroach,” the word Hutu routinely use to refer to Tutsi, a minority tribe in the region the Hutu dominate. The two groups live in relative harmony, with the help of a small detachment of Belgian peacekeepers sent by the United Nations. Marie tries to shrug off the insult. It’s simply the way things are in her country, and she has grown used to the ongoing insults. No one could have predicted what the boys’ apparently harmless prank presaged. One deals with cockroaches by exterminating them.
Father Christopher, played by a well-worn John Hurt, serves as chaplain of the school. Each line in his face bears the marks of another struggle in the 30 years he has dedicated to the people of this young democracy, trying to outgrow its colonial past. At first, it appears to be the face of a drinker, but the drooping eyes and puffy cheeks come from weariness, not drink. He is the classic “missionary.” He provides Mass for the school and nearby convent, preaches, teaches catechism, marries, baptizes and buries. Father Christopher labors solely for the spiritual welfare of his people and leaves political and economic issues to others and to God. When he discovers that a goat has gnawed through his telephone line, he takes the inconvenience in good spirit, little aware that the years have likewise isolated him from the world outside his little compound.
Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy) brings a youthful enthusiasm to the school. Young, handsome and charismatic, he has come to teach as a volunteer, to “give something back” for a few months between university and getting a real job. He functions as a foil to Father Christopher. Bubbling with energy, Connor truly believes that his brief stay at the school will make a difference. In a moment of self-disclosure, Father Christopher admits that he too once had hope for the future. It was all he had, and it has been drained away drop by drop over the years. Yet he does not despair. He knows he can do little to better the lives of his flock, but he can strengthen them spiritually for the ordeals he knows they must face. What he lacks in optimism, he makes up in heroic faith.
Historical fact provides the catalyst for the plot. The Hutu president dies in a suspicious plane crash. The Hutu claim that Tutsi were responsible. The army starts executing “suspects” and soon the killing frenzy grows out of control. Wandering execution squads kill Tutsi indiscriminately: women, infants, the elderly. Their identity makes no difference to the génocidaires. They have found a pretext to act on their long-held desire to exterminate the cockroaches. Over 2,000 refugees crowd into Father Christopher’s school.
The film, directed by Michael Caton-Jones and scripted by David Wolstencroft from a story by Richard Alwyn and David Belton, has a political point to make, and it is an important one. It challenges Western nations to ask themselves why they failed to act as the atrocities continued day after day. But in order to raise the question effectively in a 110-minute film, the script simplifies or bypasses some very complex issues. For example, it never tries to explain the roots of the dehumanizing hatred that so quickly curdled into atrocity without compunction.
As a result of boiling the story down to essentials, Captain Delon (Dominique Horowitz), the Belgian commander of the United Nations peacekeepers, appears not as a man caught in an impossible situation, but as a symbol of the bureaucratic inability to deal with the unfolding tragedy. When he speaks of his “mandate” and orders, he embodies the cold indifference of the outside world. The film offers little appreciation of his limited resources and his reluctance to go beyond the constraints of his limited mission. He grasps the immediate danger to his men when he learns that another contingent of Belgian soldiers has been captured and murdered. Their blue helmets will not protect them.
The film presents little of the terrifying agony of a commander who realizes that his small unit cannot possibly save the tens of thousands of endangered Tutsi, but who at least may be able to save his own unit and the small contingent of Europeans living around Kigali. In this situation, such a man will have to make decisions that will torment him for the rest of his life. In the film, he is a heartless functionary of a dithering U.N. Security Council.
Rachel (Nicola Walker), a seasoned correspondent for the BBC, provides another harsh and perhaps overly simplistic analysis. She admits to Joe that she has become numbed to the sight of mutilated bodies strewn across the landscape. In Bosnia, it was different. She felt the tragedy personally, since each dead white woman she filmed could have been her “Mum.” Here she sees just more dead Africans. This is a stinging indictment of Western racism, and no doubt holds more than a grain of truth, but it fails to factor in the absence of a response from the African Union countries.
In the penultimate scene a dithering spokeswoman—perhaps for the U.S. State Department; it’s not clear—provides an example of bureaucratic doublespeak when she tries to explain to the press why the events in Rwanda could not be classified as “genocide,” as almost all reasonable people agree it was. While the world argued about terminology, people continued to die, and for many mysterious reasons the outside world seemed unable or unwilling to stop it. It is a complicated truth and a nasty one.
While “Beyond the Gates” challenges the conscience, it remains a work of fiction set in historical fact. We know from the beginning how these terrible events will end. The film provides a splendid interplay of conflicted characters facing the inevitable. The tension builds with a Hitchcockian precision, from gunfire in the distance to gangs of thugs with machetes gathering quietly at the gate of the school, to an eruption of unspeakable violence when their leader gives the chilling order, “Begin the work.” In the midst of the horror, stands John Hurt’s Father Christopher, the bearer of Christ, a man of unshakable faith wrestling with the twin demons of doubt and despair. A limited man with modest aspirations in life, he may not be a reincarnation of Robert Bolt’s heroic man for all seasons, but he is certainly a man for our season.