Beyond the Gates would make an interesting double-bill with Hotel Rwanda. Both films concern the genocide of 1994—and the shock that those living in that country felt when the international community failed to do much more than evacuate the people there who happened to have white skin. But whereas the latter film was largely about Africans who survived the massacre, thanks to a cunning businessman who knew how to push the buttons of those in power, the new film concerns a Catholic priest and a teacher at his school, both of European descent, who can do little more than watch as the world gives up on their friends and neighbors.

Of course, the priest and the teacher can do more than watch—then can pray, too—and one of the most remarkable things about Beyond the Gates is its refreshingly positive view of the role that faith can play even in the darkest of times.

Hugh Dancy as Joe Conner, John Hurt as Father Christopher

Hugh Dancy as Joe Conner, John Hurt as Father Christopher

Much of this is due to the inspiring figure cut by John Hurt as Father Christopher, an engaging, compassionate man who, when we first get to know him, shares jokes with the nearby nuns, teases the teacher Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy) about a student who may have a crush on him, and generally seems to get along well not only with his Rwandan students and employees, but with their families, as well. But Father Christopher is not merely sociable; he also insists on maintaining a spiritual presence at the school even as the situation outside its walls turns increasingly hellish. As refugees arrive, seeking protection from the United Nations peacekeepers stationed there, Father Christopher keeps his cool and makes a point of serving mass at the usual times, almost as though nothing outside the chapel walls had changed.

Father Christopher is so upbeat about performing the liturgy in the midst of chaos that you cannot help but wonder, at first, if he is a little naï ve. But he has seen military coups before, so he isn't all that fazed when the new civil war breaks out—until, that is, he hears and, eventually, sees evidence of atrocities that go way beyond anything he was prepared for. Joe, meanwhile, spends time with a British journalist named Rachel (Nicola Walker), and is quickly shaken to the core by the brutality he witnesses—some of it committed by one of his friends.

The unrest begins beyond the school's gates

The unrest begins beyond the school's gates

Beyond the Gates has been criticized in some quarters for telling what ought to be an African story through the eyes of noble Europeans, but there are many stories that could and should be told about the Rwandan genocide—and one of those stories does, indeed, concern the fact that the western world failed to intervene. This theme is underscored by the film's original title, Shooting Dogs, which refers to the fact that the UN peacekeepers were forbidden to intervene or to use their weapons except in self-defense—but they did, for health reasons, shoot the animals that preyed on the corpses outside the school's gates. When Father Christopher learns this, he is outraged, and sarcastically asks Charles Delon (Dominique Horwitz), the troubled Belgian who leads the UN troops, if the dogs fired the first shot.

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Meanwhile, Rachel discusses with Joe the fact that she can't seem to identify with black Africans the same way she identified with white Europeans during the Bosnian war. The film does flesh out some of the key Rwandan supporting characters, especially a bright Tutsi pupil named Marie (Children of Men's Claire-Hope Ashitey). Even so, we don't get as close to the Rwandans as we arguably could have, and their actions and motivations remain something of a mystery to us. In one scene, Marie's father asks the departing UN troops to kill the people they are leaving behind, because the Tutsis would rather die by the UN's bullets than by the Hutus' machetes—and you cannot help but think that the equivalent scene in Hotel Rwanda, where Don Cheadle's character asks his wife to be ready to kill their children, was so much more powerful, because we had had a chance to get to know them as people first.

Clare-Hope Ashitey as Marie

Clare-Hope Ashitey as Marie

The film—conceived by BBC journalists David Belton and Richard Alwyn, written by David Wolstencroft (MI-5) and directed by Michael Caton-Jones (whose credits include everything from Rob Roy and Memphis Belle to Basic Instinct 2)—is a tad thin in other areas, too. Catholics and Protestants alike may quibble with Father Christopher's explanation of the doctrine behind the Eucharist, for example, though perhaps for different reasons. But the film is blessed with excellent performances, and it is clearly motivated by a desire to make this tragedy known. If you see it, stay for the credits, which reveal that a number of the film's crew are survivors of the genocide themselves. Hopefully future films will get closer to their stories.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. The film begins with a Buddhist proverb: "Every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell." Do you agree? How does this proverb underscore human responsibility for our actions? Which characters open the gates of heaven, and which characters open the gates of hell?
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  1. What sort of character is Father Christopher? How has he been written and performed? Is he a good man who happens to be Christian? Is he a deeply devout Christian whose goodness stems from his faith?
  2. In a moment of despair, Father Christopher says that everyone is just doing what they are told—whether it is coming to mass or slaughtering their neighbors. In which scenes do characters merely do what they are told? In which scenes do they make decisions for themselves? Do the people who make decisions for themselves always make the right decisions? Is there any value to doing what you're told?
  3. Father Christopher tells Joe to "find fulfillment in everything." How is this possible, especially in a situation like the Rwandan civil war?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Beyond the Gates is rated R for strong violence (scenes of people being attacked with machetes, etc.), disturbing images (including the discovery of some dead nuns who appear to have been raped) and language (roughly half-a-dozen four-letter words in English and French, and at least one use of Jesus' name in vain).

What other Christian critics are saying:

Beyond the Gates
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for strong violence, disturbing images and language)
Directed By
Michael Caton-Jones
Run Time
1 hour 55 minutes
John Hurt, Hugh Dancy, Dominique Horwitz, Louis Mahoney
Theatre Release
December 08, 2005 by IFC Films
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