The straightforward, very American, talking-head "expose" approach to documentary, cribbed from television shows like "Dateline NBC" and "20/20," has become the norm - and, in exploitative dreck like "Capturing the Friedmans" and "Crazy Love," efficiently transformed real human lives into sound bites and greatest-hits packages. The recent "Crazy Love" comes across as especially derivative and tasteless in its poking and prodding at a woman's painful experience, preferring stringing together cute soundtrack cues and tabloid gossip to deconstructing the social black holes that created its central psychosexual bond in the first place. This form of documentary, wedded to personal narratives of rise-and-fall, destruction-and-reconciliation, is now prevalent in multiplexes. So seriously has it detracted attention from the groundbreaking traditions of direct cinema that it's hard to imagine a mainstream audience knowing what to make of French filmmaker Olivier Meyrou's superlative "Beyond Hatred."
Elegiac in tone, sparse in information, Meyrou's film isn't remotely interested in pushing viewers' buttons; in its detailing of the aftermath of a tragic hate crime in Rheims, France, "Beyond Hatred" so utterly avoids gratuitous horrors, exploitative grief, and moral grandstanding that those expecting a traditional cine-postmortem will be baffled. In reality, with "Beyond Hatred," Meyrou adheres closely to the cinema verite tradition, recently explored by French filmmakers such as Raymond Depardon ("The 10th District Court") and Nicolas Philibert ("To Be and To Have"), whose ethnographic dissections of people and spaces never preclude warmth or respect. Here, the murder of gay twentysomething Francois Chenu, recounted with melancholy clarity by his surviving parents, siblings, and lawyers, becomes both an inquisitive peek into the justice system and the slow process of healing.
After boldly and without shame admitting his sexuality when confronted by skinhead youths, Chenu was beaten nearly to death and then drowned alive. We learn of the circumstances of the murder through many different conversations and monologues, either delivered between family members or in voice-over. In the most memorable set-up, Francois's sister's off-screen recounting of her brother's last days emanates over a static image of the bend in the road where Chenu was killed. Joggers run by, their footsteps clomping and echoing, oblivious to the camera catching the scene as the sun goes down, music coming in and out on the soundtrack in pointed Godardian shards. It's this disconcerting naturalism that lends the film its staying power: shots of desolate, snowy mountain roads, candlelit vigils, all shot without sentimentality.
"Beyond Hatred" is a film about tolerance (the parents try to understand the killers, who came from an utterly different social class and political background), but Meyrou doesn't feel the need to preach. To further express just how disinterested the filmmaker is in "engrossing" us in lurid details, not only do we not see crime photos or hear grisly blow-by-blow descriptions of the murder but also we never once are shown images of Francois, or his attackers. Though legalities may have been involved in that decision, the film undeniably benefits from such restraint; instead it immerses the viewer in the in-between moments, outside the courtroom, in cafes, waiting out trial deliberations. There's anger in this fly-on-the-wall look at the moments following heartbreak, but mostly an attempt at understanding the horrors of this world we live in, by both subjects and filmmaker.
Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.