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.

Obviously you went there fully prepared to see death and dying, but can you tell me what happened that made you realize that this was something truly evil?
The roadblock scene in the film did happen to me.  And it was frightening.  It was this idea that they were quite prepared to kill people in front of us.  It felt like there were no rules.  They didn’t care of the media was watching or not.  Also, it frightened us because we thought we were next. That fed into an important feeling which was that we felt sometimes that we didn’t do a particularly good job.  It was very diff to convey what was going on.  A number of us left because we were genuinely fearful for our lives. And I left.  That roadblock made me leave, but I know colleagues who stayed.  I feel bad about that, but that active leaving was a defining moment. I’d made friends with this tremendous European priest, Vjeko Curic.  He sheltered us and he stayed, and he was a very remarkable man.

In the film, the character played by Hugh Dancy looks remarkably like you.
Don’t tell him that, please.  I’m sure he would be quite horrified.

(Laughing)  Well, how about a young David Belton then?
All right.

Now Joe, his character, has a strong Christian faith.  And, what happens to him is similar to what happened to you.  Were you there as a person of faith, like him?
I had a faith in a rather conventional British sort of way, but I was questioning that when I got there.  I’d seen enough to question it, to wonder about it.  But I think that what I saw there made my faith come up short.  I just couldn’t reconcile what I had been taught as a young man going to church with what I saw there.  It was very difficult to reconcile a benevolent god with what going on there. People were running for their lives and being killed, often in churches.  In my mind, it was too tough for my faith to stand.  So the character of Joe – he has his own faith and it’s not representative of mine, but there are echoes of that.  Certainly Hugh is not playing me, though, nor does he represent me.

How did you cope with this trauma at the time?  What did you do with your emotions?  What about afterwards?
I was pretty British.  I buried things very deeply.  It was only when I heard that the priest had been killed in Rwanda four years after the genocide, that I thought, “Come on!  Grow up!  You are not addressing things!”  You’ve got to deal with it.  You’ve got  …it’s going to come back and bite you.  If you think you can just bury it, it will appear.  I very much wanted to find a route through that.  I didn’t want to sit in a psychiatrist chair and moan.  I wanted to do something that was tied with the job that I loved doing, which was making films and documentaries.

How did the film come about?
I had been making documentaries for years and Richard Alwyn and I had been writing stories for feature films. He said, you’ve got to be really passionate about the subject, and maybe we’re not doing that.  What’s the thing that really matters to you?  I said, Rwanda.  It’s something I feel very strongly about, very passionate about, but I have yet to deal with it.  He said, Come on, let’s do it.  So we wrote the story.  BBC films loved it and wanted to run with it.  ….we found a young writer who wrote a fantastic script.  We took him out to Rwanda and he wrote an even better second draft.

It was released in the UK last year under a different name. Why did you go with the title change?
We all felt that it was a title that alienated people.  In the UK, people saw it as a film that was about genocide, but it was about shooting dogs.  We wanted to find a title that was a bit more embracing – a bit more inviting. 

Even though it’s about genocide, there’s a deeper message, isn’t there?  You wrote in The Guardian that “Rwanda’s genocide is not a far-off place: the unhinged violence, the ungraspable guilt, the profound grief are still palpable on every street, through every district, every hillside village.”
Oh, you read that?

Yes.
Well, that’s why we filmed there.  And it is about a genocide, but it’s about something much more than that. We’ve always believed that it’s about how we want to behave as human beings.  The reason people are moved by this film – they write me, they email me, they say extraordinary things – is not because we’re all standing around, waving the flag of Rwandan genocide.  It’s because [we’re] asking every member of the audience, “Do you have the courage to stand by your convictions?  What do you believe in?”  I always remember that scene in Saving Private Ryan where he asks, “Have I been a good man in my life?” which was the statement that Tom Hanks had said to him.  It’s about trying to find goodness in a very difficult place.  That’s what drama and feature films can do. 

So that’s the message of the film.
[Yes.]  It’s about doing what you can, and not just saying that it’s too difficult.  The best that you possibly can – not in a preachy way, because someone didn’t go and see their Mom last week. But that we’re all in this world together and we need to do what we can, even if we might do some things differently in hindsight.

What do you wish that you had done differently?
I don’t, actually.  Part of me wishes at the moment that I hadn’t left Rwanda.  But we make the decisions we make as human beings and at the time we make the best decision we possibly can.  Maybe if I hadn’t left, Richard and I wouldn’t have sat down and written this story, and that would have been a real tragedy.  There’s no one single act that I think of as something that I should do differently.  I think that I try and live in a way that is doing the best that I can.


Beyond the Gates opens Friday, March 9 in New York City then additional cities on March 16, including Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.  For more information, visit www.beyondthegates-movie.com.