When BBC journalist David Belton went to Rwanda on assignment in 1994, he didn’t realize the impact that the country’s widespread genocide would have on him, especially long term.  Just 25 at the time, Belton understood that he would be facing death – even, perhaps, his own.  What he didn’t comprehend was that he would be staring into the face of evil.

“The Rwandan genocide was different from others,” Belton wrote last year, in an essay for The Guardian.  “There were no walled ghettoes, no trains discreetly shuttling victims off to a cold, gas-induced death. No epic forced marches away from cities and towns to the privacy of a rice paddy. In Rwanda, genocide was everywhere. Ordinary people, civilians, rose up against their neighbours and, sometimes, their own families. Occasionally they got their hands on guns or grenades but usually the killing was done with machetes, knives and clubs. People were killed in houses and back gardens, at beer stalls, bakeries and churches; along the corridors of municipal buildings, hospitals and schools.”

Belton saw some of those murders.  One happened next to his vehicle at a roadblock, in fact.  While the journalists looked on, a man was hacked to death with machetes.

“They were quite prepared to kill people in front of us,” he said, speaking recently from his home in London.  “It felt like there were no rules.  They didn’t care of the media was watching or not.”

Years after the killings had ended, and long after Belton had returned home, he found himself still reliving the trauma.  As a result, he began to write and produce Beyond the Gates.  Filmed on location in Rwanda with numerous genocide survivors serving as cast and crew, the feature film tells the story of some 2,500 Tutsi citizens and sympathizers who take refuge inside a private school in Kigali, along with United Nations peacekeeping troops, schoolchildren and workers.  When the UN troops withdraw five days later, the Rwandans are slaughtered by the Hutu militia. 

The film’s plot is fiction, but it was largely inspired by events surrounding a Bosnian priest named Vjeko Curic.  Curic, who was eventually killed as well, sheltered Belton and his team while they were in Rwanda.  The priest also shared that he had been ferrying Tutsis out of the country in the bottom of his truck.

Released last year in the United Kingdom under the title Shooting Dogs, Beyond the Gates stars John Hurt (Midnight Express, The Elephant Man), Hugh Dancy (Black Hawk Down, King Arthur) and newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey (Children of Men).  It was chosen as the official selection at the Toronto Film Festival, the London Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and received the prestigious Truly Movie Picture Award at last year’s Heartland Film Festival.

I spoke with Belton recently about his experience in Rwanda as well as his role in writing and producing the film.  Here’s what he had to say:

I enjoyed the film very much.  I was bracing myself.  I thought it would be very hard to watch – and it’s certainly not an easy subject.  But you handled it very tastefully.
Thank you.  We didn’t want people to feel like they were going into an endurance test.  It’s very moving, it’s very powerful and there will be things that you will not forget.  [But] we didn’t want people to feel like they’re going to the dentist.

I think it’s a film people need to see.  Tell me a little bit about your initial assignment to cover Rwanda, and how long you were actually there.
I got into Rwanda after about three weeks after the genocide had begun.  We were very clear that there was a genocide going on.  It was very difficult to work there – very dangerous.  It was very hard to travel around.  There were many roadblocks and a lot of killing.  But we felt that it was very important that we get the story out. I’d covered other conflicts, but I’d never seen anything like that before.  There was a kind of moral inversion going on.  What was right was now wrong and what was wrong was now right.  That’s quite frightening for a young guy of 25 or 26, even if he has seen things in Bosnia.  It was very undermining to exist in this strange moral vacuum. That had an affect on me that was quite dramatic.  For years afterwards, I didn’t really resolve it.  The feature was a way of doing that.