Beyond Hatred (Au delà de la haine, 2005)

Director: Olivier Meyrou

Celebrating Bastille Day: French Films All Week


By Marilyn Ferdinand

“What was all this for?” says a mother as she looks down at her belly—an unconscious act that the mother must be reminded of by her daughter when they recall the moment she and her husband learned that their 29-year-old gay son, François Chenu, had been beaten beyond recognition and drown in a Rheims park by three young skinheads.

In this one memory, director Olivier Meyrou sums up the insanity not only of hate crimes and senseless murders, but the lament of millions of mothers throughout history who have lost sons and daughters to the state-sanctioned hate crime of war. Meyrou’s aim, as signaled by the film’s title, is to go beyond hatred. Unlike Americans who preach tolerance, he and Mr. and Mrs. Chenu seek a change in hearts and minds, a real transformation in which the French slogan of equality and fraternity is embraced and internalized, not merely complied with. It’s a noble aim, but François Chenu chose the wrong moment, with the wrong people, to preach it.


Meyrou’s film begins two years after the murder, as the family prepares for the trial of François’ attackers, Fabien, Franck, and Michael, who was 16 at the time. Discussions among the still-stricken family revolve around speculations that have turned to obsessions. Why did the killers target François’ face? What did François say to his attackers? His sister mentions, with an understated guilt, that she suggested the bar in Rheims to François that he went to the night he was killed. The family’s attorney, meeting with Mrs. Chenu and her daughter amid a desk piled with files, goes over certain facts of the case and the backgrounds of the killers, and asserts that she has provided all the information she has to the family. Mrs. Chenu thanks her for her kindness. This scene seems done more for the benefit of the camera than for the two women—a benign legal system in action.


When the family and camera crew move to Rheims for the start of the trial, we are treated to numerous shots of the park in which Chenu met his fate accompanied by voiceovers from various people talking about the crime. The path has a few “footers,” but is mainly dark and deserted, emphasizing the precarious situation Chenu found himself in when he was ambushed by the men who originally were looking to “do” an Arab. The fixed camera/voiceover was quite reminiscent of Claude Lanzmann’s technique of shooting railroad tracks and building exteriors as voices describe the horrors of the Holocaust in Shoah. Showing the Nazi tattoos of the skinhead murderers and recounting their rhetoric of ethnic hate further link the two crimes. However, the scale of the two films is vastly different, particularly as Meyrou focuses so tightly on one family. Gay bashing is a widespread problem, and I believe Meyrou might have been trying to universalize it by deliberately omitting the names of nearly all the people he photographs (French audiences, of course, would likely be very familiar with the case and the players) but this presentation doesn’t give it the kind of impact a broader examination would; thus, the visual parallels with Shoah are largely lost.


The film is further hampered by a lack of access to the killers. The trial takes place in camera because Michael was a minor at the time of the murder. We see the family react—for example, François’ sister blowing off steam to a friend about how one of the defendants showed remorse only when instructed by his lawyer and in the language provided by the lawyer—but never look the killers in the eye ourselves. Instead, we listen to their attorney talk about the possible sentences they might get, the terrible family backgrounds of the boys, and the responsibility to discover the root causes of skinhead violence.

Indeed, these philosophical debates—a staple of French discourse—recreate conversations that took place in the United States during the 1960s and 70s that gave way to the highly punitive ideology and practices of the 1980s through to today. It may come as a shock to Americans used to high mandatory sentences even for first-time offenders and living with the largest prison population in the developed world that the older killers likely will be sentenced to 20 years in prison and may serve only 11 years—and nobody except one man in a tavern seems to think that’s a problem. The concern is whether the killers will return reformed or go back to their hateful ways. The rehabilitative focus in France is a memory from America’s past and one I was pleased to see hasn’t died everywhere.


The moving conclusion of the film shows that Mr. and Mrs. Chenu are willing to put themselves out to accomplish that rehabilitation. They read a letter they sent to each of the killers letting them know they did not seek vengeance and hoping the men would find a way to release the hatred that turned them into killers. The Chenus solicited letters from each of the men and said they would respond; two did write back.

François drew a line in the sand that said he would no longer cower to bullies, and unfortunately, he paid the ultimate price. His family is proud of him, but I’m a little more rueful. It pays to pick your battles, and given the circumstances, François made a fatal error in judgment. I’d be interested to know whether homosexual men and women agree with his decision or feel the same way I do.

On the subject of crime and punishment, Beyond Hatred is an interesting film that ought to be discussed in the United States especially. We kill our killers in record numbers and impose death-in-life sentences where the death penalty cannot be imposed. We seem to have given up on rehabilitation, and are doing little to change the environments that breed murderers. The need to turn things around has never been greater if we truly wish to be a model to the world. It may already be too late. l

  • Maya spoke:
    5th/08/2009 to 11:29 am

    I’m not sure your query can be answered in any specific way, Marilyn, just as it would be difficult to do so if the same question were asked about straights. Gayness is not anything monolithic and its precisely the diversity of its constituency that makes generalizations difficult.
    I was bashed once, when I was in my teens, for singing along to “Hey Jude” on a pizza parlor jukebox. I was more ashamed than injured. It’s taken me years and years to measure distinctions between pride and shame, which ultimately are two sides of the same coin.
    I was also struck once on our public transportation system when I tried to help an elderly couple who were being harassed by a gang of kids. That was when I personally learned that you have to pick your battles wisely, as you say. My righteousness led me right into trouble. As much as cinema elevates ideals that we as individuals may wish to follow; life is another thing altogether. Perhaps this is why we go to cinema? To honor ideals that are near to difficult to enact?
    As I grow older self-preservation rules over righteousness. It’s a sad fact but true. I would rather live to tell the tale.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/08/2009 to 11:40 am

    Maya, I quite understand that no community is monolithic, but I’m not the subject of this type of bashing (as a woman, I have other battles to fight). I didn’t want to presume (which is why I asked), and I suppose everyone finds that line inside themselves. Some people are willing to martyr themselves for a cause, some just get into a rage that gets out of control, others hide from controversy. I’ve always been rather outspoken and have had to learn to temper my remarks, but even I think that Francois Chenu made the ultimate mistake. If activists and citizens learn and use his example, then he will not have died in vain.

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