January 7, 2007

Dogs' Will Have Its Day



IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME coming, but "Shooting Dogs," the "other" Rwandan genocide movie, has finally secured a North American theatrical release.
New York-based Adirondack Pictures has acquired the rights and teamed with IFC Films to handle distribution.

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, pic opens March 9 with a new title for American auds: "Beyond the Gates." The new moniker is meant to broaden the film's appeal beyond urban liberals, its primary audience in other territories.

By the time the film made its 2005 Toronto Film Festival premiere, the producers faced U.S. buyers potentially overexposed to the pic's subject matter. United Artists released the well-received "Hotel Rwanda" in 2004, while HBO bowed its telepic "Sometimes in April" in 2005.

However, the Caton-Jones drama is arguably the most authentic of the three. It derives much of its raw emotional power from the fact that it was the only one to shoot in Rwanda itself, using many crew and extras who lived through the horrific events it depicts. The end credits, a moving testimonial to their contribution, are worth the price of admission alone.

Producer David Belton was part of the BBC news team in Rwanda during the genocide. His experiences inspired him to develop the movie, which was backed by BBC Films. Belton earned a BAFTA nomination last year and the film also got two nods at the British Independent Film Awards.

It's based upon the true story of the massacre at Kigali's Ecole Technique Officiel. U.N. troops guarding the school compound were ordered to withdraw, leaving hundreds of Tutsis at the mercy of the homicidal Hutu mob outside.

The script revolves around the moral struggles of two fictional characters, a Catholic priest (John Hurt) and an idealistic young English teacher (Hugh Dancy). They must decide whether to leave with the U.N. or stay and help the Tutsis at severe risk to their own lives.

Although the U.S. was the hardest territory to sell, Belton believes it's the market with the greatest potential. A special screening in Louisiana in April bolstered his confidence: Organized by the wife of a local professor who appeared as an extra in the film, it drew an intense response from a 650-strong, largely Christian audience.

The movie also swept the jury and audience prizes at last October's Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, which is dedicated to films with moral as well as artistic merit. With a heroic priest as its central character, the pic has a natural hook for the devout Midwestern crowd.

"We want to embrace a wider audience that we know exists out there and that wants to own this film," says Belton. "They went nuts for it in Louisiana -- I'm still getting emails from people who were at that screening. And in Indianapolis we're like the favored son."

Indeed, the title was changed because the filmmakers felt the dramatic irony of "Shooting Dogs" -- a reference to UN soldiers who were willing to fire upon stray dogs eating dead bodies outside the compound, but not upon the hostile Hutus -- was too restrictively cynical and intellectual.

The film also has new opening and closing captions that emphasize its moral and spiritual dimensions. The movie opens with the Buddhist proverb, "Every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell," and closes with a quote from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: "The opposite of faith is not heresy, but indifference."

Adirondack was co-founded in 2004 by brothers Paul and Tom Hardart, who previously worked for Universal and AOL, respectively. With equity backing from private investors, they provide production or distribution financing for two or three projects a year.

They were fans of "Shooting Dogs" from its first Toronto screening, but thought it had already been picked up by a bigger distrib. But when their friend Tom Carver, the BBC's Washington correspondent who had been in Rwanda with Belton, alerted them last year that the rights were still available, they jumped at the deal.


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