An innocent utopia foreshadows horrific violence in Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile, one of the best acquisition titles at TIFF19.
Title cards separate Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile into three parts: ‘Innocence’, ‘Sacred’, and ‘Sacrilege’. Set at an elite girls boarding school in 1970s Rwanda, the film begins by plugging us into an innocent utopia through startling gorgeous drone shots of the lush greenery surrounding the girls’ school. Rahimi uses gentle fades to transition between scenes and each vignette depicts the charming misadventures of these girls whom we slowly come to know and love. They learn, play, pray, and do chores in the day, messing about in their respective cliques, as all school children do. At night, the several dozen pupils stay up past their bedtime in their shared dorm, telling stories, cracking jokes, poking fun at one another, and having the occasional pillow fight. They’re here to be nourished socially, religiously, and educationally, and in their current idyll, they are.
However, the film takes place during a military coup d’état that increased violence against the Tutsis, eventually leading to the Rwandan genocide which killed millions, and this knowledge is a dark shadow over the girls’ joyful exploits. All of a sudden, Our Lady of the Nile takes a dark turn when prejudicial comments that a group of Hutu girls make toward the two Tutsi girls at the school turn into insidious lies — a precursor to threats of horrific violence. Rahimi’s film is a heart-breaking look at the corruption of innocence: breathtaking cinematography and a sprightly jazz-infused score bring out how sweet that innocence was, so it’s all the more devastating to see it cruelly snatched away.
Still seeking distribution in the US, UK, and Canada
Screens 9/14 at 8:30 p.m. (Scotiabank Theatre). Tickets here.