On the night of Sept. 13, 2002, in Leo Legrange Park in Rheims, France, three neo-Nazi skinheads, the youngest no more than 16, the oldest in his early 20s, beat and killed 29-year-old François Chenu. The three had made a habit of roaming the city to beat up Arabs, Jews, "fags" — anyone they deemed different and "subhuman." That night, they'd been searching for an Arab but instead came upon François, who, when asked, answered without hesitation that he was gay. He fought back against his attackers and, after being savagely beaten, he called them cowards. This set off a second wave of beating that led to François' death by drowning in a nearby creek.
The story of Beyond Hatred is hauntingly expressed by filmmaker Olivier Meyrou in the absence of photos or home movies of the murdered young man. It begins more than two years after the crime, as the trial of the confessed killers approaches. For a non-French audience, the film offers a surprising snapshot of the French way of justice. But mostly, Beyond Hatred is the story of François' parents and siblings and their struggle to understand what they cannot excuse and to rise above hatred and the desire for revenge. The Chenus fight not only to save themselves from bitterness, but also to uphold the principles of tolerance for which François lived and died.
Shot in direct-cinema style, with dark tones and long, evocative takes, Beyond Hatred forgoes third-party narration to let the story be told by those who must deal with the crime's aftermath — the lawyers and prosecutors as they seek justice through the courts, those who knew the victim and his murderers and even the father of one of the perpetrators. Most of all we hear from the Chenus: François' father, Jean-Paul, and mother, Marie-Cecile, and his two brothers and two sisters, as they try to reconstruct what happened and face the horror of François' last minutes.
Meyrou has made adept cinematic choices that let us feel the family's experience — such as the long, still shot of the park at night shown while in voice-over François' sister Aurelie describes how the family learned of the murder. What is even more striking than the Chenu family's effort to know what happened is their desire to understand why it happened. They want justice, certainly, and do not equate understanding with excusing. Yet it is clear that for the Chenus, understanding that such a crime does not come out of nowhere is a way of preventing the killers from wiping out the family's own humanist values along with their son and brother.
In an expression of forbearance that may bewilder some, Jean-Paul sets the tone from the very beginning of Beyond Hatred when he describes the senseless murder of his son as "a failure of the society I live in and am part of." This is an exceptional family. Its members are acutely aware of what they describe as their "humanist values," as well as the emotional and psychic trauma they have been dealt by the crime. The Chenu family could not be further in spirit from the three youths who killed François.
In such an environment, when everyone from the Chenus to the lawyers wants to understand the true nature of the crime, the facts quickly spill out. This crime certainly did not come out of nowhere. The three accused (never seen in the film), Michael Regnier, Fabien Lavenus and Franck Billette (the youngest), came from eerily dysfunctional families in which neo-fascist beliefs and activities had been tolerated or encouraged. (Franck's parents eventually are sentenced to 30 months in prison for their dereliction of duty toward their son.) The poor state of the young men's education, their exposure to familial violence and disorder and their vulnerability to older mentors with ideologies of hate and violence are chillingly exposed.
With such revelations, the trial ultimately turns on two questions: whether the three skinheads intended to murder or "lost control," and even more importantly, whether any of them, especially the youngest, has the potential to redeem himself. As the trial progresses, the young men's awareness of their crime's gravity and the matter of whether they feel any genuine remorse, become subjects of intense conversation between the lawyers and the Chenus.
The murderers receive stiff sentences — though they are not stiff enough for some of the family, and by American standards they may seem light. (There is no death penalty in France and none of the Chenus believe in the death penalty.) And there is hope, especially for Franck, that he may emerge from prison and redeem his life.
François' parents write an open letter to the convicted killers, which they read on camera in Beyond Hatred. They tell the imprisoned men how, during the trial, they "attempted to decipher your logic of hate but were unable to do so." They point by contrast to their son's trust in others because "he believed in man, whatever his color, religion or customs." And yet, "we also heard from your lips words that suggested that something was changing inside you." The Chenus close with an extraordinary wish for the men's success in forging "a future . . . without hatred and violence."
The Chenus' struggle to be true to their values in the face of great injustice and tragedy is a stunning testament to humanity's power to find a way past the violence that plagues modern society. Their story is an attempt to throw light into the dark, hollow center left by François' murder.
"I wanted to show how, In the course of the trial proceedings, the family changes," says director Olivier Meyrou. "The grief is gradually replaced by a desire to understand the murderers, who come from socially and culturally underprivileged families and have been exploited by right-wing, radical groups. The film testifies to the family's effort to forgive them. This is a humanistic film about a very complex theme — hatred and the need for justice and forgiveness to combat it."
Beyond Hatred is a production of Miss Luna Films and Hold Up Films in association with France 5 and France 2.