Notre-Dame du Nil [Our Lady of the Nile] (2019)

Notre-Dame du Nil
Director: Atiq Rahimi
Writer: Atiq Rahimi, Ramata-Toulaye Sy
Based on: Scholastique Mukasonga‘s novel
Cast: Amanda Mugabezaki, Albina Kirenga, Malaika Uwamahoro, Clariella Bizimana, Belinda Rubango, Ange Elsie Ineza, Kelly Umuganwa Teta, Pascal Greggory
Seen on: 25.8.2022

Content Note: colonialism, racism/ethnical violence, abortion, misogynoir

1973. Notre-Dame du Nil is an exclusive catholic private school in the middle of nowhere in Rwanda. It is there that the (Hutu) elite of the country send their daughters to get their education, like Modesta (Belinda Rubango) and Gloriosa (Albina Kirenga). But there is also a quota for Tutsi girls like Veronica (Clariella Bizimana) and Viriginia (Amanda Mugabezaki). Nevertheless, things are harmonious. At least at first. With ethnical resentments brewing around them, the school doesn’t stay a safe haven for long.

Notre-Dame du Nil tells a strong story with good characters that sheds some light on Rwandan history in the microcosm of its setting.

The film poster showing a group of girls in white night-gowns having a pillow-fight.

I haven’t read Mukasonga’s novel that is the basis for the film (though I certainly would like to now), but it seems that the novel is based on her own experiences which makes things even worse because there is a lot of shit that happens in the film and that nicely illustrates the net of racism, religion and colonialism in which the girls are caught. All of those threads have one thing in common: misogynoir.

It may look different depending on what thread you look at: it might be callous disregard for the life of a girl if she’s not a virgin; it might be fetishizing a girl for her “royal blood”; it might be the desperate and increasingly violent attempts to be the “right girl” to escape it all and stay on top. But it all boils down to this: if Black girls don’t behave according to a very limited set of rules, it can cost her everything. The story does an excellent job to capture that desperate situation.

Modesta (Belinda Rubango) and Gloriosa (Albina Kirenga) standing in the rain.

Rahimi does a good job with the film for the most part, if you ask me, a white European woman (there is an ill-advised scene with a pillow fight in the girls’ bedroom that feels more like a fantasy about what girls might get up to in their bedrooms than actual lived experience). But I can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like if a Black woman had made it – it seems a quintessential Black female story.

That being said, I found Notre-Dame du Nil an impressive film that doesn’t let you off the hook easily, but keeps the finger on where it hurts. Especially considering what happens here is only a small taste of what happened in Rwanda in 1994.

Veronica (Clariella Bizimana) and Viriginia (Amanda Mugabezaki) walking away from school.

Summarizing: not easy to watch, but in a really good way.

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