Atiq Rahimi Broke New Ground in ‘Our Lady of the Nile’

The unsettling events of one school year at a Belgian-run Catholic boarding school in 1970s Rwanda foreshadow the genocide to come in “Our Lady of the Nile,” Atiq Rahimi’s adaptation of Scholastique Mukasonga’s award-winning novel, which opened the Contemporary World Cinema section of the Toronto Film Festival and screened Saturday at the Marrakech Film Festival.

It’s the third feature from the Kabul-born novelist-turned-filmmaker, following his debut, “Earth and Ashes,” which won a prize at Un Certain Regard in Cannes in 2004, and “The Patience Stone,” which premiered in Toronto in 2012. The film is produced by France’s Chapter 2 (“Le Brio,” “Paradise Lost”) and Les Films du Tambour (“Sibel”). Indie Sales is handling world sales rights.

After adapting his own novels in his previous films, Rahimi tackled his latest feature with a similar approach. “Every time I adapt a book, I try to find another dimension, another face that is not clear, that is not evident, that does not immediately come to you [in the book],” he said.

“Our Lady of the Nile,” however, marked the first time he would work in “another country, another culture, and another language.” Faced with that uncertainty, Rahimi decided to spend five months in the central African nation before principal shooting began. “I needed to go there to find the cinematographic language of this book,” he said.

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That decision revealed a different side of a country best-known for the genocide that claimed close to a million lives. While portraying some of the ethnic violence that presaged the events of 1994, Rahimi and DP Thierry Arbogast also captured quiet moments of everyday life, as well as the striking beauty of a country known as the “land of a thousand hills.”

“I didn’t want to make a documentary [about] the political story of Rwanda,” said Rahimi. “I made a film [that was] very poetic and also universal.”

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