A girl named Gloriosa sees her mate Virginia stealing a bit of sugar and she makes an oblique reference to the theft in company of other girls. The accused then offers to teach her during an exam. It seems a fair exchange—that is, until they are caught.
An early incident in the remarkable Our Lady of the Nile, which is based on Scholastique Mukasonga’s similarly titled novel, might be familiar to most people with first-hand experience of secondary school.
A girl named Gloriosa sees her mate Virginia stealing a bit of sugar and she makes an oblique reference to the theft in company of other girls. The accused then offers to teach her during an exam. It seems a fair exchange—that is, until they are caught. Blame goes this way; blame goes that way. What goes unspoken is the ethnic and classist undertone in the exchange. They are from different ethnic groups and Gloriosa is the daughter of a minister.
The place is a catholic school for girls, the country is Rwanda. The period is the 1970s. The school is headed by a white Mother Superior and around it is a white man with a plantation farm.
When the white man Mr Fontenaille hangs a drawing of one of the schoolgirls on a tree, another one goes to his home to ask for a drawing of herself. But Mr Fontenaille is more interested in her sidekick Modesta.
These apparently small incidents play out against the tribal politics out in the larger world of adults. But, of course, the girls have inherited some of the adult bigotry so that as they leave school for a vacation, one girl calls her mates “cockroaches”. The pair of girls she is referring to are Tutsis and apparently are the only girls of their ethnicity in the school.
If the idea of Hutus and Tutsis in one space lends itself to the inevitability of violence, it is because of what the world knows now. But in most of the period inhabited by the titular school, the genocide was in the future and for many of the characters, the coming violence was a rumour.
What director Atiq Rahimi shows in this impeccably cinematographed picture is how the roots of what sweeps a country can be generated from what, in different circumstances, are harmless actions. Sometimes the villain isn’t a monster. It is an ambitious schoolgirl with hand-me-down dreams of ethnic superiority.
Parents might ruin their children, as an English poet once wrote. It turns out they can also ruin a country.
Our Lady of the Nile is showing at the 2019 AFRIFF and is scheduled to screen on Thursday, 14th November, 2019.
Filmhouse Landmark, Screen 4