Au-Delà de la Haine (Beyond Hate) is almost unbearable to watch, but all the more vital for it.
In September 2002, a gay man named François Chenu was severely beaten and left for dead in a pond in a park in Rheims, France by three young neo-Nazi skinheads on the prowl for Arabs. When they first approached him, Chenu refused to be intimidated: He did not hide his queerness and he fought back — calling his attackers cowards — when they sadistically laid into him. After his death, Chenu’s parents and siblings followed his courageous example by transforming their private grief into a public discussion of the failure of republican values of égalité and fraternité that the French lay claim to so vociferously.
Olivier Meyrou’s vérité documentary, which won a Teddy Award at the Berlin film festival, is not only an unfathomably intimate portrait of one family’s mourning process but a meditation on the meaning of tolerance and justice — filmed as the boys are put on trial two years later. In seeking the moral high road and attempting to get beyond the hate they feel, the family not only wants to know every gory detail of what happened that horrible night, but also tries to help the murderers give up the viciously antihuman subculture they’ve embraced.
The film allows us to eavesdrop on a series of reflections, conversations and debates involving Chenu’s family, the lawyers on both sides of the case and even some of the family members of the accused (though they themselves do not appear), alternating between breathtakingly close-up footage of these dialogue scenes and evocative long takes of the park where Chenu was killed, placidly continuing on as it always has, with running joggers and night slowly falling. The emotions are largely held back: There are no histrionics nor deluge of tears, just people trying to understand and to serve justice with dignity.
There are many stunning moments, like mother Marie-Cécile trying to articulate why the death of one’s child is so soul-shattering. The restrained but elegiac score — which values silence as much as sound — adds greatly to this sober, fly-on-the-wall portrait.
A warning: Meyrou’s focus on human interaction over exposition means we must piece together the events and parties involved ourselves: we rarely find out names, must guess at relationships, and sorting out the network of the accused, their families and lawyers takes some work. But this is all of a piece with the director’s penetrating case for the talking cure as a means of transcending the cycle of violence — of resisting the drive for vengeance — and changing hateful attitudes.