Decolonizing the Lens

Because of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda occupies a complicated place in the world’s imagination. A new film, about the preceding 1973 pogrom, wants to demystify that view. Does it succeed?

Still from Our Lady of the Nile."

This year marks 26 years since the horrifying genocide in Rwanda and the 100 days of slaughter that went unheeded by the world. The killings began on the night of April 6, 1994, and left almost one million dead and wounded, while an entire country sank into traumatic shock. This is usually a season for mourning for Rwandans since then and the collective mood is generally heavy and downcast for days on end. An entire generation of Rwandans has since come of age under the living and breathing memory of these events. History has also come under heavy scrutiny, and the hideous tangle of Belgian colonial policies that created and nourished the flames of division between Tutsis and Hutus has been excavated and discussed extensively in books and art over the past two decades. 

I would not go as far as to say that academic, literary or creative production from and about Rwanda is profuse or plentiful, given that production from the African continent as a whole remains marginalized and misappropriated, and exists outside of most international frameworks of distribution and promotion. Within that, East Africa occupies an even more marginal space. But since 2006, Rwandan novelist Scholastique Mukasonga, who writes in French, has blazed her own singular and prolific trail. Born in a large Tutsi family in the Gikongoro region, Mukasonga’s life from the age of four was marked by a series of expulsions and displacements. She grew up in a refugee camp, and has recounted the crippling fear of violence that was part and parcel of her daily life in her memoirs. As a writer, Mukasonga has significantly broadened the historical frame of the genocide in Rwanda by referring to pogroms against the Tutsis in the fifties, sixties and the seventies, events that shaped and eventually culminated in the genocide of 1994.

Now, Mukansonga’s internationally acclaimed 2012 novel Our Lady of the Nile arrives as a stunningly beautiful new feature film from French-Afghan writer and director Atiq Rahimi.

The novel has not only taken Mukasonga on a journey of international success, but also offers a glimpse into the actively cruel, racist and misogynistic policies of the Belgian colonial authorities. Set in an all-girls Catholic boarding school, two Tutsi girls who have been admitted based on a quota system allotting ten percent of slots to Tutsis endure horrific anti-Tutsi violence as gossip, jealousies and rivalries between teenage students escalate into a killing frenzy (while the Belgian nuns and teachers literally shut their ears and doors to the “purge,” locking themselves in safety).

Our Lady of the Nile has stayed steadily in the limelight in the last few years. The original French publication in 2012 was followed by the English translation in 2014, as the book garnered awards and acclaim. And now, Rahimi has given it yet another life by bringing it to the big screen. Admirably shot entirely in Rwanda, with Rwandan actors and with plenty of dialogue in Kinyarwanda, Rahimi’s film is visually breathtaking, tightly edited and an emotional rollercoaster. It is no surprise that it has already snapped up some awards at film festivals. The film is divided into four acts that are interspersed with haunting and lyrical passages narrated by a kind old witch, Nyirimongi—a Greek chorus-like device that becomes an objective, moral vector and our calm respite as the tragedy unfolds.

Rahimi’s adaptation makes some interesting moves with regards to the interpretation of the novel. Teasing out the main plot arcs, the film compresses the time span of the story to the few weeks building up to climactic violence against the two Tutsi girls enrolled at the elite boarding school. The novel’s timeline is much longer, and describes the village in which the school is located, while narrating a complicated regional history through local characters who are not part of the Our Lady establishment.

Rahimi’s boarding school tragedy follows a potentially conventional trajectory, with the first section, titled “Ubuziranenge” (Innocence), portraying a somewhat “normal” routine in which the pupils exist in relative harmony and are united against the authority of the teachers, nuns and priests. The girls discuss boyfriends, get caught copying exams, argue with teachers over their curriculum and cut lines for the bathroom. Rahimi also conveys nostalgia for days gone by with an occasional slow motion scene or long shots of lush landscapes that will soon come to represent a paradise lost. The gorgeous cinematography can feel bewildering given Rahimi’s lingering close-ups of beautiful young women, but by the end of the film, it is clear that, while there is a proclivity to aestheticizing, this is no sexualized fetish cam.

Innocence is, of course, soon thwarted as the school bully, Gloriosa, abetted by her meek companion, Modesta, set out to put their two Tutsi classmates, Virginia and Veronica, in their place. A local Belgian artist, De Fontaneille, harbors a fetish for Tutsi women that helps drive a sense of division as the shocking plot unfolds. Mukasonga’s novel, and now Rahimi’s film, explore what is called the “Hamitic hypothesis” that is often cited as the ideological basis of Belgium’s deliberate underdevelopment of the Hutus. Cunningly alluding to the Hamitic myth through a church sermon scene, Rahimi introduces the viewer to the Biblical story, which claims that the descendants of Ham, son of Noah, populated the areas by the river Nile, and thus remain related to Europe. In Rwanda, it was the Tutsis who were made to fit this category, and in a boarding school literally built on the banks of the Nile, the character of creepy De Fontaneille embodies a preoccupation with this racialized myth. He is openly obsessed with Tutsi women, their facial features, their necks and their blood lineage.

Je vous aime” ( I love you people), De Fontaneille languidly tells Veronica and Virginia, then proceeds to spin for them a convoluted myth about Tutsi queens. By drawing a sketch of Veronica and lavishing compliments upon her about the shape of her nose, all in front of her classmates, De Fontaneille sets Gloriosa on a jealous and destructive path. She decides that the revered statue of the Madonna near their school must be given an authentic Hutu nose. “Our statue has a minority nose,” Gloriosa fumes. Later in the film, she physically climbs upon her friend’s back in the dead of the night to replace the statue’s nose: “You’ll soon have a nice Rwandan nose,” is Gloriosa’s demented, nationalist declaration to the statue. With the fires of hate and revenge officially fueled, the next three acts—titled Ikizara (Sacred), Umuziro (Sacrilege) and Igitambo (Sacrifice)—give us a glimpse into the actual 1973 pogroms that took place at schools and universities with the intention of purging Tutsi students enrolled on quotas.

A master stroke in Rahimi’s interpretation is the focus on direct and lived impacts of the invisible iterations of racism that colonialism creates and sustains: the inferiority complexes generated through European ideas of beauty; the promotion of “good” taste and refinement through European food leading to shame and alienation towards one’s local culture; and finally, what the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has called the psychological and spiritual subjugation coming from the imposition of colonial language at a young age.

Some of the contemporary African boarding school narratives I have read engage similar tropes. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Book of Not, like Mukasonga’s book, teases out the complicated reality of co-existing with schoolmates when racial and ethnic lines remain so tautly drawn. The battles that rage outside spill over into the inside. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s memoir In the House of the Interpreter, for example, gives us a glimpse into a boys boarding school as anti-colonial war rages outside. Here, too, Christianity, European refinement, physical education and language superiority are meted out in the same toxic cocktail seen as fine and “elite” colonial education.

In the film, several shots of nuns bolting the iron gates of the Our Lady mark the ways in which these women’s bodies and their virginity is constantly controlled. “We’re accountable for the virginity of the girls,” the Mother Superior explains when a student shocks the establishment by getting pregnant out-of-wedlock. As the film progresses, the gates—which also symbolize a forcibly united post-independence Rwanda, mirrored in the structure of this school—are rendered futile. Soon enough, the violence is brought right into the classrooms and the dormitories as young men rape and kill.

In Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ wrote that colonialism meant that the “night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard.” Our Lady of the Nile illustrates this by allowing the audience to eavesdrop on some infuriating lectures dished out by deadpan teachers proclaiming racist ideas, such as the notion that “Africa has no history,” or reprimanding characters with the adage, “You are expected to be good citizens, good Christians.” In one of the school assemblies, students are explicitly told, “I have heard girls only speak Kinyarwanda. Our code of conduct forbids the use of this language.” In addition to Christian chastity, the French language and glorified Western history, the ideals of good taste (code for European refinement) are also playfully dissected. The young women taste foreign foods like foie gras and caviar and find them repellent. Amidst the giggles, Gloriosa reminds them, “You girls have to get used to this kind of food … At official dinners, you won’t be eating beans and bananas.”

Rahimi also layers the film with archival imagery, with the perhaps pedantic goal of revealing horrifying facets of Belgian history. In one old photo the girls discover, they are puzzled about why one of the men’s faces is crossed out with a red marker. It is a 1960 photo of Patrice Lumumba at the event of his controversial speech commemorating Congo’s independence, and when King Baudoin of Belgium had famously stormed off. Such intertextual elements are artfully woven throughout and serve to emphasize the acute impact of European imperialism not just in Rwanda, but on the African continent more widely.

Women’s narratives about boarding schools expose the realm of the intimate and the domestic as a space of war. The origins of violence can be traced to seemingly banal, spiteful rivalries over who’s more beautiful. We see the brainwashing in action as the girls gush over photos of the Belgian queen, who they proclaim as “beautiful.” They are also fascinated with De Fontaneille; they visit him in hopes of becoming his muses. Virginia’s character remains an important counterpoint here. Always sage, analytical and prescient, she places her faith in pre-colonial systems of belief as the crisis threatens to worsen. She visits Nyirimongi, who lives in the mountains, and pleads for help. The message here seems to be that the colonial edifice upon which independent Rwanda was built cannot yield solutions or peace. Instead, we are going to have to return to older histories and alternative, non-Eurocentric approaches.

However, the Rwandan women students of Our Lady are not complicit recipients or foolish mimics of ordained behavior. Characters switch to speaking in their native language when required. Some find ways to hang out with their boyfriends and are certainly not invested in virginity. Catholicism is part of the school’s fundamental structure, but for the women, it is often no more than a charade. When a classmate suddenly dies, they all participate in the Christian prayers, but in the dead of the night, they whisper: “I’m sure they lied to us,” concluding that “[n]othing’s fair in this world when you are a woman.” As an alternative to the Christian prayers, they choose to mourn their friend under the inky twilight with a beautiful, traditional dance in the rain, reminiscent of scenes from Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. Though this is hardly the world of the Northern Ireland series, Derry Girls, all the young women show spunk and attitude in some form or another. And the consistent representation of these women as empowered and independent-minded is the real redeeming feature of a film that could have easily succumbed to a depiction of these women as victims of society, family, institutions, war and the country itself.

While films about Rwanda have tended to focus on the events of 1994, Our Lady of the Nile is a game-changer because of its attempt to map the lesser known moments that contributed to and then culminated in the final horror of 1994. That said, the film does not significantly complicate the main political narrative about Tutsis as victims, Hutus as victimizers and Europe as the silent instigator. Human rights reports and the occasional memoir or documentary have attempted to argue that Hutu civilians suffered abuses too, and that the story is far more nuanced. But Rwanda occupies a complicated place in the world’s imagination. The current president, Paul Kagame, has held power since 2000 and has been heavily criticized for his forced reconciliation and social re-engineering programs. Perceived as the epitome of a benevolent tyrant, he does command respect in neighboring countries that complain of their own leaders’ corruption, inefficiency and a lack of heartfelt commitment to their people’s advancement. Given the intense rigidity of the current national narrative, it would be difficult to move the needle too much. Additionally, Mukasonga, who lost a shocking 27 family members in 1994, brings her personal experience to bear in her novel and by extension, the film.

Our Lady of the Nile is a difficult but gripping book, and it is not surprising that Rahimi, himself a war refugee, saw a powerful film in the material and took on the challenge of bringing it to the screen. The challenge here is not only of cinematic adaptation, but of producing and distributing such a story within the context of a lopsided film industry that makes it hard for such movies to succeed outside the frameworks of festivals and small screenings. And this year, a cruel season has dawned upon us all as a global pandemic threatens livelihoods and collective sanity. Sadly, it has stemmed the flows of art, literature and culture. Our Lady of the Nile was scheduled to make the rounds with screenings in different cities, and while these are now cancelled, I still hope that there is a way for the world to see this gorgeous film in the near future.

Further Reading