About four years ago, Olivier Meyrou was sifting through ideas for a documentary about homophobia when he found what looked like the ideal angle.
I was trying to find homophobia all around the world, in the USA or [Saudi] Arabia, and suddenly I read this story about Fran?s Chenu, the French director explains.
In September 2002, three skinheads beat Chenu, then left him to drown in a pond in Reims, north-east of Paris.
The killers were reportedly looking for an Arab to mug but set upon 29-year-old Chenu in a park after he told them he was gay.
To Meyrou, the skinheads’ approaching trial seemed the ideal basis for a film tentatively titled The Mechanism Of Hatred.
All that changed when he met Chenu’s family.
I realised maybe it would be good to tell the story through their eyes, to show people that killing a homosexual in a park is not just a homosexual, it’s a son, it’s a brother, it’s a friend, it’s a real part of society, Meyrou says.
And so The Mechanism Of Hatred became Beyond Hatred, as Meyrou replaced a study of gay hate with the much stronger theme of forgiveness.
Meyrou’s fly-on-the-wall documentary opens 700 days after Chenu’s murder, in the lead-up to the skinheads’ trial. We hear from the lawyer helping Chenu’s family and those representing the attackers, as the case comes to hearing.
The film, which won the best gay documentary award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, draws much of its power from Chenu’s parents and sister. The family was reluctant to be involved at first, but saw an opportunity in telling Fran?s’ story on camera.
They wanted with the film to connect their values with the murder and send a message which would be constructive, Meyrou says.
It allows the family of Fran?s to keep the idea of Fran?s alive. Fran?s is dead, but the idea of Fran?s is still burning. For them I think it’s a great relief.
By the end of Beyond Hatred, which screened at the Sydney Film Festival this week, the trial is over and the skinheads have received lengthy prison terms.
But it doesn’t end there. In the film’s moving final scene, Chenu’s parents read out a letter they later send to their son’s killers. Their offer of dialogue is an astonishing step from a family that could have easily chosen hatred.
[They] didn’t want the door to be closed and then to have these three guys saying, -˜You don’t like us? We don’t like you either,’ Meyrou says.
Two of Chenu’s killers have replied. The oldest, who is in his mid-20s, revealed in one letter he was sharing a cell with a gay inmate.
He’s saying to the parents of Fran?s that as soon as he gets out for the one-hour walk [in the prison yard], the other prisoners treat him as if he were gay.
So it helps him to evolve somehow.
[But] it’s not a fairytale at all, Meyrou says.
Fran?s’ father and mother are completely destroyed, but they don’t want the family to be based on hatred.
They’re doing that work for society and their family.