Our Lady of the Nile is the adaptation of Scholastique Mukasonga 2012 auto-fictional award-winning book of the same name by Afghan filmmaker Atiq Rahimi. The film in French and Kinyarwanda was this years’ Berlinale winner of the Generation 14 Plus Crystal Bear and is set in 1970’s Rwanda.
Inspired by true events, we are transported from a mystical lush jungle to a Catholic boarding school for young girls. The teenagers are to become their country’s elite and future leaders’ wives. Thus they are taught by local and Belgian nuns about how to be good pious homemakers and westernized, educated ladies. When they are not doing chores for the Church, such as cleaning up the school Saint (a Virgin Mary statue painted black) or tidying up the archive containing pictures of Westerners basically invading their land, they are in school learning about European kings and how to plant things. When students ask why they cannot learn more about their country or continent, the only explanation the nun-teacher can give is that is “Africa is for geography and Europe is for history” – or because colonialism was strong with this one!
“The teenagers are to become their country’s elite and future leaders’ wives.”
Playing as a coming-of-age story in four parts, Rahimi focuses mainly on the teenagers’ lives, their aspirations, their relationships in and out of school, or their nightly talks in the dorm where they share their adventures and ideas of the world in touching scenes. But Our Lady of the Nile is particularly interested in highlighting the tension boiling between some Hutu and Tutsi students due to the political climate and their family prejudices affecting them. Some of the girls are so young but seem so brainwashed already that we can see how hard it would be to reverse the damages made and how much worse it could get.
In fact, despite taking the time to nicely paint the full picture, Our Lady of the Nile is ultimately about how the sad legacy of how hate can easily be passed from one generation to the next, but also how hard it is to escape inevitable violence. Of course, it is more complicated than that with the additional socio-economic factors, diversity of beliefs, and the foreign occupation illustrated in various ways with the Church and a dubious “friendly neighborhood white landowner” incarnating all that is wrong with colonialism.
"…always something sinister about those institutes for young girls or Mean Girls..."