It has been over a dozen years since the Rwandan genocide—an atrocity in which as many as 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers were killed by Hutu extremists in just a few months, while the outside world turned a blind eye or, worse, withdrew what little help it had offered in the first place.
David Belton covered the genocide as a reporter for the BBC. He went on to become a producer of documentaries like War Spin and Soldiers to Be, and he returned to Rwanda for his first dramatic film, Beyond the Gates, now showing in limited theaters. (Look for our review on Friday.)
Beyond the Gates, co-written and produced by Belton, is one of a recent spate of films about the genocide that began with the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda and also includes Sometimes in April, A Sunday in Kigali and the upcoming Shake Hands with the Devil. One thing that sets this film apart, though, is the fact that its protagonist is a Catholic priest whose response to the atrocity is rooted in his own religious convictions.
Belton spoke about the film in a phone interview from his office in Great Britain.
Why did you pick this topic for your first non-documentary?
Belton: I had been a journalist for the BBC in Rwanda in 1994, and had covered the genocide, and had spent quite a lot of time out there during the events that the film depicts. So it was a story that was very close to my heart. When you move from the world of documentary to the world of drama, you've got to be really sure of yourself and the messages you want to convey, because it's a much more powerful medium. And so I wanted to be sure that I was going to tell a story that was close to my heart, something that I felt very strongly about.
Were you aware when you chose this project that there were other Rwanda films in development at the time?
Belton: Yes. I knew Terry George was making Hotel Rwanda, and for a time we were kind of running along in parallel with them. But we fell behind them because we were very keen to make the film in Rwanda. [Hotel Rwanda was shot mostly in South Africa.] I knew the people there, and I knew that they would have wanted this film to be made in Rwanda. And it became very clear to me that we should be making it in the place where the actual story happened.
I think we've got a film that is very authentic and something that anyone who was involved in making the film found to be an extraordinary experience, and one they will carry for the rest of their lives. And of course it was wonderful to be in Rwanda and to help the Rwandans tell their own story.
Did going back to Rwanda and having to relive this bring back bad memories?
Belton: Yeah. The memories never go away, but certainly, going back brings the memories to the forefront. But to be honest, as bad as the memories are, they kind of disappear into the background when you start to form friendships with the Rwandans themselves, and everything they went through. My experience was very traumatic at times, but it was a thousandth of what was going on for Rwandans. I found certain scenes difficult to watch; there were times when I would just walk away, and that was fine for me to do that.
I think Rwanda was really pleased that we came there to make this film, and part of that reason, I think, is that the process of reconciliation for these two ethnic groups—Hutus and Tutsis—to come together and live together as one, as they did before 1994, requires a huge amount of reconciliation. And reconciliation involves going through the history of what happened, and talking about it. And I think our film, for all those who participated in it, and indeed for all those Rwandans who have now watched it, I think they found it a cathartic experience.