Several films have been made about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when the marginalised Tutsi people were murdered en masse by the Hutus, most famously Hotel Rwanda (2005). Our Lady of the Nile stands apart: less a factual retelling of the atrocities and more a poetic, dreamlike exploration of how prejudice brews and corrupts innocence. Rather than trying to tackle the state of the entire country, we see the makings of the genocide play out in the microcosm of an all-girls boarding school. The school slowly transforms from an innocent utopia that allows the girls to flourish, to a place of hate-mongering and violence.
Director Atiq Rahimi is no stranger to war, having fled his birthplace of Afghanistan for France in his 20s. Clearly interested in dissecting the war that upended his life, Rahimi has since written books, taken photographs, and made films that reflect on the conflict in his home country. Our Lady of the Nile is proof that this interest extends beyond just Afghanistan: Rahimi’s work chronicles the seeds of war and how any country with a social hierarchy is susceptible to enacting violence.
At TIFF, I talked to Rahimi about making films about war, his unique cinematographic language, and helping non-professional actors feel comfortable in front of the camera.
Seventh Row (7R): When did you come across the book? What struck you about it?
Atiq Rahimi: I first encountered the book in 2012. The author, Scholastique Mukasonga, had won a literary prize in France. At the time, I never could have imagined I would adapt it to film.
I’ve always wanted to make a movie in Africa. I was looking for projects, but I didn’t just want to be a tourist. I wanted to go somewhere with a specific project in mind, with something already in the works, because then it would allow me to understand the people of that place, understand how they live, and understand their souls.
For Rwanda, in 1994, there was an atrocious genocide. At the same time, in Afghanistan, there was also a war that is still going on today. And there was also the civil war in Yugoslavia. So three horrors were happening at the same time in the world. In Afghanistan, I wrote many books and [made] documentaries. I’ve produced a lot about my own country of Afghanistan, and I could see a parallel. I wanted to show and understand another face of horror.
When the producer offered the project to me, I immediately said yes, but I had my reservations. I had my doubts. I was hesitant because I didn’t know the culture, the country, and also there are already many fiction films made about the genocide. That was not what I was interested in.
I didn’t necessarily want to go into a historical, factual depiction; rather, I was interested in going deep into the psyche of this country, what their dreams are made of, what their nightmares are made of. The book allowed me to have a deeper understanding of the culture, this mixture of the pagan witches, and also colonialism, how it influenced the country and bred hatred, as well.
It was very informative and allowed me to understand the culture of Rwanda, as well as the roots of the horror of ‘94. How did the horror happen? It didn’t just happen out of thin air, obviously. The book depicted the culture pre-genocide, in 1973, 20 years before the actual event. I wanted to show that brewing period..
7R: You were working with a cast of young, non-professional actors. How did you help them feel comfortable in front of the camera?
Atiq Rahimi: In my first work of fiction, [Earth and Ashes (2004)], I had already worked with non-actors. I do love working with people who don’t have acting experience because I can capture authentic emotions.
I worked with a great casting director. [The girls] had to speak French as, at the time [when the film is set], everybody would speak French. They had to be between 16 and 20 years old. It was difficult as these girls would have never lived through the genocide. They live in a completely different period of peace. In many movies about this subject, they would cast African-American actors, but I insisted that I wanted my actors to be Rwanda.
Six months before shooting, I went to Rwanda, and I offered a two-month workshop for these girls to train them in the art of acting. I was very pleased with the result. They had great presence in front of the camera. My daughter also came to help. She offered some training classes. Coincidently, she happened to be in the same age group as these girls, and they were able to relate to her. There was rapport and trust built. The fact that my daughter was there gave them self-confidence, as well, because my daughter is an actress in France, and if she can make it, then maybe they can become actors, too.
Every training session was three hours. After every session, I would have one-on-one sessions with each of the girls. They would tell me about their dreams, their nightmares, and also their parents, because their parents would have lived through [the genocide]. I even encouraged them to ask their parents about that time and to tell it back to me. Through these meetings and these interviews, through the girls, I got a sense and understood how the genocide unfolded. It helped me direct them on set a lot better, too, because I was able to gain an understanding of the way they are speaking, their body movements, and their gaze.
7R: The film looks very beautiful. How did you work with your cinematographer to devise the aesthetic?
Atiq Rahimi: I love finding the unique cinematographic language for each story. You can not pretend to know what reality is, as a filmmaker. I really don’t like when you have the camera on the shoulder, and you are following things as they move, as if the audience would be submerged in reality, when that is not the case. I don’t want to pretend that I even know reality.
Instead, I wanted to go into the imagination realm with a dreamlike scene, a dreamlike feeling. That’s why the beginning of the movie was very important: to show a five-minute take where the camera goes [into the girls’ dormitory], and you see the nine girls asleep, as if they were the hills of Rwanda. The entire image is beautiful, soft, like a dream, but a dream that eventually starts becoming nightmarish.
I’ve worked with my chief DoP [Director of Photography], who is a very well known French DoP [Thierry Arbogast], on my previous feature film, The Patience Stone [(2012)]. He’s also worked with Luc Besson and [Brian] DePalma, so many well-known directors. He knows what I’m looking for, my visual treatments. He knows I really like working with paintings. He knows my sense of aesthetic. He came three or four weeks before we started shooting, and we worked together.
7R: The film starts off light, joyful, and even funny, but then it becomes darker as prejudice and violence grows more prominent in these girls’ lives. How did you pace that descent from innocence into violence?
Atiq Rahimi: Firstly, I wanted to show the girls in their innocence. They are wearing white; the dorms were blue; and they were playing with feathers. So it was very light and innocent. Secondly, it progresses towards the sacred. I wanted to show religion and how religion starts taking advantage of innocence. Third, it continues to escalate towards the sacrilegious or the profane. There’s then a transgression at that point. Finally, the fourth chapter would be that this profanity becomes violence.
For many years, that’s [been] a recurrent theme I’m exploring: from innocence to the sacred to violence. That is a cadence I wanted to establish in the film. I also wanted to show the role of religion and the church and the sacred in the movie. In the Rwandan language, for example, the concepts of innocence are very different. It’s not just conceptual, but the word innocent itself means a child who is smiling at the enemy.
7R: The film’s score has a jazzy, upbeat feel. Why did you choose that type of music?
Atiq Rahimi: The same as what I was speaking about with the cadence: at first, you notice that there’s music, but then when the violence starts in Chapter Four, then there’s just silence. There’s nothing.
Why jazz? At first, I worked with a film musician to compose music for this film, but then, when he actually played the music with the image, I felt that it really didn’t work. So I had to not use what was made for the film. I’m not a fan of illustrative music, when music is done just to highlight emotions — like when you are sad, you put in sad music. I don’t like that.
Instead, when I was in Rwanda, every night, I would be putting on these three albums by three great jazz musicians who had travelled to Central Africa. Every night, they would go to a village and play their jazz. I was non-stop listening to this. Their jazz was inspired by the colours, the atmosphere, and whatever they captured in their time during their travels in Africa.
During the editing, when I was quite frustrated with the music, my editor suggested, “Why don’t you play something that you like?” So I played those three great albums, and it really worked. I slept listening to this music, and it really entered my own imagination and dreams, it almost charmed me in a way.
7R: What are you working on next?
Atiq Rahimi: I’m going to be adapting a novel by a great Lebanese-French writer, Amin Maalouf. It’s going to cover the period between 1941 to 1973 and France’s plunge into World War II. At the same time, there is the Israel-Arab war, as well as the Lebanese Civil War. As you can see, war follows me. But this time, I’ll try to think about why that region of the world is still living the horrors of war.