Our Lady of the Nile

This is part three of The first Cinematographer I studied three-issue series.

Arbogast shoots a lot of big action movies and I like a lot of them including LucyKiss of the Dragonla femme NikitaLéon: The Professionaland The Fifth ElementThe latter is one of my favorite world-building Sci-fi epics. And photographically they are wonderful to look at, but there is a certain degree of adrenaline in the aesthetic that isn’t rooted too deeply in the human experience. They are more fun and cool, escapist and entertaining. Sometimes they are thought-provoking—there is always a human or scientific element or both.

In Lucy, we are confronted with the untapped potential in the human brain. In Kiss of the Dragon, we are thrown into the unfortunate realities of sex trafficking. In la femme Nikita, we grapple with female identity in a male-dominated underworld. In Léon: The Professional we join a hitman in his prime, his career, a well-oiled machine until he decides to help a confused but strong-willed adolescent girl who tugs and tugs at his very guarded heart. In The Fifth Element, we tangle over the idea of cosmic good versus evil where the fate of the world is in the hands of a vulnerable yet powerful savior played by a cinematic goddess, melting into the hands of a talented yet down on his luck everyman.

Exciting, right? Yes! But that excitement comes at a cost, and the cost is depth, a depth that reaches into the darkest and brightest places of the ever fragile human condition in everyday life. There is a time to seek nourishment in these depths and a time to rest in the shallows. And the time for me right now is to be in the depths. And in these depths, I’ve been watching a film called Notre-Dame du Niltranslated Our Lady of the Nile—an allegory about the Rwandan Genocide that takes us on a journey through enchantment into absolute horror.


The film begins in haunting retrospect with a lamenting voice narrating a tome of reflection over a woman swimming in a lake. Then, a series of brooding shots, take us over, around, and through a destroyed boarding school. Thierry shoots at either dusk or dawn, exposing for the sky, keeping the set and subject in the shadows with muted highlights. He bridges the mood over to the school, but with added weight, he omits the sky, shoots on an overcast day, and brings in fog. The movement of the fog mimics the splashing and rippling water and the muted brightness of the fog mimics the lake’s reflection of a muted sky. And we are invited to the past by the soft-spoken narrator as she says “let me take you where ingenuous hearts once lived.”

Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 1 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 2 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 3 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 4 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 5 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 6 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 7

After a fade to black and a title card, we are eased into the present time of the allegory with dark pre-dawn imagery of a now populated boarding school—pictures and posters decorate the walls instead of graffiti. The girls rise with the sun and it’s now warm and bright. It’s a time of happiness and prosperity at an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Rwanda. And it may seem at first, that this story is about a contrast between the strict religious confines of the school vs the outside world.


The church and the classrooms are staged and composed symmetrically, much like Davinci’s Last Temptation of Christ. And with scenes often starting from behind a head of religious authority. Shots in churches mirror shots in classrooms. The framing is deliberate. However, the exteriors and intimate living spaces are casually staged and composed with looser camera work, playing off the energy outside the institution where scenes begin more openly, not stuck behind someone’s head.

But we’ll soon find out that this dynamic is just a foundation of innocence—gradually being lost, foreshadowing the horrors that are about to come. For, the real conflict is an allegory about the manufacturing of dissent between two classes—the Tutsi and the Hutu—which led to the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 8 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 9 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 10 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 11


Historically the Tutsi were aristocrats with wealth and control over government while the Hutu were more of a working-class. But they had a lot in common and eventually—long before the twentieth century—the two classes assimilated. What caused the recent division is up for debate but most claim that it was exacerbated by Europeans who insisted on class division, officially designating people as either Tutsi or Hutu on the basis of their physical measurements, cattle ownership, and Church records.

As this allegory progresses we follow the antics of two Tutsi girls, Veronica and Virginia. For most of the film, they are just trying to be girls, having fun following their passions. But at the same time, we are also following two Hutu girls, Gloriosa and Modesta, whose antics quickly turn from fun to extremely classist. Especially when Gloriosa starts to inspire anti-Tutsi sentiment among the rest of the girls.


The structure of the film is unconventional with a near episodic cadence in about three categories—The Hutu girls, the Tutsi girls, and other girls. The Tutsi Girls are largely preoccupied by their interests in an artist—Monsieur de Fontenaille—who lives nearby at an old Coffee Plantation. But the Hutu girls spend their free time engaging in anti-Tutsi sentiment. For example, in an episode with the Tutsi’s, we’ll join them on a trip to the Coffee Plantation where the artist gives them a tour of his house and studio. Then on an episode with the Hutu girls, we’ll join them on a trip to the Notre-Dame Du Nil statue (basically a statue of the virgin mary) as they chisel off the statue’s Tutsi nose, to replace it with a Hutu nose.

And then there will be an episode featuring a different girl altogether, like when we follow a girl named Frida as she comes back from a weekend getaway, having gotten pregnant.

Each episode has a near-complete story arc, with all the usual beats and visual tropes such as “the dark night of the soul.” In most films, this would only happen once. So, This may have presented a unique challenge for Thierry as he had to wrap his head around so many visual arcs in one film. Subplots are common but usually, they aren’t so episodic, and somehow they need to be interwoven into the overarching plot, which—in this case—leans heavily on foreshadowing. 


The film is garnished with foreshadowing techniques that go from subtle to arguably distracting. The foundational look of the film is earthy and soft—a subtle aesthetic that allows these techniques to stand out. At first, it’s the use of slow motion, then a black and white sequence, and then a full-on psychedelic trip. Slow-motion and black and white are used in scenes that depict fun times.  The techniques invoke how fleeting these moments are because many of the girls are about to be raped and killed. The psychedelic trip foreshadows the death of Veronica and the general escalation of events that are leading to genocide.

The one that distracts and confuses me is the black and white sequence. An episode with the Tutsi girls (Veronica and Virginia) concludes with a close-up of Veronica starring out the window of a traveling bus. From here we fade into the black and white sequence. Because of how these images juxtapose it feels like Veronica is having a daydream, and that the daydream is about her, but it’s neither of these things. The sequence features various girls from the boarding school and ends with a girl named Frida.

The basic idea with this sequence is to transition us to another episode with a completely different character while further expressing the fleeting nature of the fun times. But the initial shot of Veronica looking out the bus window signals the wrong idea. It may have been better to compose a shot that clearly indicates the end of this episode. Something wider with the bus driving by would work, or even a shot with all the girls jumping off the bus as they arrive at their destination would have been great too.

There was an attempt to string everything together and ease out of Veronica’s episode. The first black and white shot appears to feature Veronica, but it’s wide, moving, and quick. Plus, she’s wearing different clothes and large sunglasses. This all makes it difficult to see if it’s her. And the next featured girl is obviously not her. So, things start to get confusing. Then after seeing a few other girls in a few other shots, there is an attempt to feature Frida which would connect the dots over to her. But her head is turned away from the camera during most of the shot, which is again quick and moving. So, we can’t be sure.

Additionally, this is an actual scene that takes place along the same timeline as the surrounding scenes and events. So, why black and white? In this regard, it doesn’t make sense. It’s not a dream and it didn’t take place in the past. Its only purpose is to invoke the fleeting theme. But unfortunately, this adds to the confusion.

The sequence ends with a long dissolve back to color as a car carrying Frida arrives at four armed men blocking the road. This is effective because we immediately get the feeling that the fun times will soon be over. The armed men let the car pass as the dissolve into color commences and Frida’s episode begins.

Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 12 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 13 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 14 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 15 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 16 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 17 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 18 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 19


Frida brings back some European foods and shares some with her friends. They have fun trying the food and talking about all the perks of European influence. At one point the lights go out, leaving us to depart the scene under warm and romantic candlelight. But as we’ll soon learn, this vibe is more like bribes and bait. As it turns out, Frida got pregnant by the young Ambassador she was apparently out with. And a few scenes later she has a miscarriage and dies. This speaks to how European influence—with its rich, shiny, and delicious facade—is a hidden fatal poison that works slowly and deceptively, invoking dissent between the Hutu and Tutsi.

Frida’s death is followed by one of those “dark night of the soul” beats. It takes place at night as it usually does. At first, we see a series of dark interior portraits of the girls, nearly all in tears. Unable to sleep, they go outside in the rain to howl at the moon in some kind of wonderfully ritualistic way. They are all wearing white—a nice contrast to the dark landscape and a compliment to the moon glowing in the sky. In a movie with a happy ending, it would be getting better from here but we are headed into tragedy, there is another episode coming, and we are only about halfway into the film.

Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 20 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 21


In another episode with Veronica and Virginia—color and saturation are slightly boosted and VFX are employed. Veronica visits the artist alone for a portrait sitting, upon which the Monsieur gives her a mysterious psychedelic—probably iboga, a shrub-like plant found in various regions around Africa that when consumed puts people in perceived contact with entities, ancestors, and autobiographical memories—providing a more objective overview of one’s life.

Veronica sees her own death and meets a queen. Hours or days later she’s back at the boarding school having a nightmare—the queen is haunting her dreams. Virginia thinks her friend has been cursed and promises to remove it. She visits a witch doctor, who sends her out on a ritualistic journey to purge the queen’s spirit from her friend’s dreams.

There is a lot going on here, but the most obvious is how Veronica indulges her aristocratic privilege, despite warnings from her more practical and cautious friend Virginia. This indulgence will eventually lead to her brutal death.

Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 22 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 23 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 24 Our Lady of the Nile Frame Grab 25


The next episode is Gloriosa’s rise to power. Together with a reluctant Modesta, she concocts an elaborate lie that manipulates the town into thinking she’s a hero. She then uses this status to stir up division among the girls, inspiring half the school to take some kind of stand.

After another dark night, we are back to Veronica and Virginia. Veronica is back with the artist, sitting once again for her portrait. Virginia is with the witch again, maybe following up with her ritual to help Veronica. Later they are hanging out together in the library, speaking softly. Virginia is well aware of Gloriosa’s campaign against them—against the Tutsi—and feels like the danger is getting too close. She thinks they should run away and hide. She knows a place. Veronica is much less cautious. She has too much faith in her privilege. She thinks she’ll be safe with the Monsieur.


After a short dark night, it’s the tragic day. Some girls get away and hideout but it looks like Virginia is the only one to survive. Unfortunately, Veronica wasn’t safe at the coffee plantation. She is killed while sitting for the Monsieur and as the camera pulls out we can see that he is dead too—massacred.


The Horseman on the Roof

In 1996, Thierry Arbogast was trusted to shoot the most expensive film ever to be made in France. His canvas was the French countryside and his tireless efforts garnered him a Cesar award for Best Cinematography. Two beautiful humans were in front of the lens— Olivier Martinez and Juliette Binoche—and the film was directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau. And the American title is The Horseman on the Roof.

This is part two of The first Cinematographer I studied three issue series on DP Thierry Arbogast.

The film takes place during a time of war and cholera in 1830’s France as Italians revolt against Austrians to gain their independence. It follows the adventures of a revolutionary horseman–Angelo–as he travels through the countryside raising money for the cause. But his efforts are thwarted at every turn, forced to evade capture and disease while falling in love with a married woman–on an adventure of her own to find her missing husband.

Even in its most horrific moments the film is breathtaking—often referred to as gorgeously picturesque, sumptuous, and idyllic by international critics. For me, it’s a cinematic masterwork—every shot and sequence impeccably designed—fully exploiting the most sophisticated and effective techniques in the cinematic arts.

Pre-electric period pieces are often magical experiences. It’s hard to go wrong with the soft glow of candlelight and the atmospheric rays of daylight that penetrate dark interior spaces. For sensitive filmmakers who insist on being authentic to the period and subject matter—lights and other tools are all subservient to naturalism and are only used to enhance or emulate. Locations are carefully and deliberately scouted. Schedules are arranged to accommodate for the time of day so that scenes can be shot under the best lighting and weather conditions. Yes, there is always compromise, but not before dedicated efforts are made.

The Cinematographers job is to focus the audience’s attention on the things that matter most–in ways that are comfortable to consume. In this film, Arbogast uses a lot of frames within frames to guide our eyes.

Long before cinema, proscenium arches were used to frame and focus the action on stage—containing the audience’s perspective so that their eyes didn’t wander. When cinema began, the camera was placed as if it were a member of an audience with a full view of the action on stage–no panning, no tilting, no additional angles–just a static wide shot. The language of Cinema hadn’t been developed yet and early conventions dictated a full head-to-toe view of the characters at all times. But a breakthrough didn’t take long–camera movement began to evolve between 1900 and 1912 and gradual experimentation with camera placement and character blocking came shortly after–while the proscenium concept endured and evolved along with it.

In Horseman, we can see how the proscenium concept evolved–trees, buildings, passageways, and interior embellishments constantly frame the action.

The Horseman on the Roof frame within a frame 1 The Horseman on the Roof frame within a frame 1 The Horseman on the Roof frame within a frame 3

Arbogast adds a layer of sophistication by using the technique to enhance the drama–guiding us subtextually through the character and story arcs.

The Horseman on the Roof story arcs 1The Horseman on the Roof story arcs 2The Horseman on the Roof story arcs 3

Depth is another technique Arbogast uses to focus our attention. Once again, in the pre-cinematic era, there was a painting technique known as Aerial perspective—background features in landscapes were muted to enhance the perceived distance, creating a 3D effect.
Evidence of this technique is seen in frescos dating back to 30 BCE. Leonardo DaVinci embraced it in paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Rembrandt used it in group portraits to add depth between the foreground and background characters to focus attention on the main character.

In cinema, we can use actual distance but lens compression often reduces the effect. So, using fog, haze, or soft focus in the background stands in for muting colors. When using a painted or CG background the same old painting technique applies. And oftentimes we take advantage of natural occurrences.

The Horseman on the Roof depth by fog 1The Horseman on the Roof depth by fog 2The Horseman on the Roof depth by fog 3

Shot composition and blocking also play a role in depth. An angle looking down an alleyway garners added depth when a character begins approaching the camera from far in the background. Stages and sets often lack such depth, so taking advantage of this while on location helps to add more dimension to the scope and grandeur of a story–the antithesis evoking claustrophobia.The following frame grabs are from a single shot–as Martinez approaches from the distance, the camera moves in.

The Horseman on the Roof depth with distance 1The Horseman on the Roof depth with distance 2

For Arbogast, these techniques also help express tone and mood–grounding the audience in the film’s unfolding emotions.

It looks like he used a combination of lens diffusion and haze throughout the shoot—this is fairly typical for period films. There is also a consistant textural quality in the sets and locations–no shiny metal, reflective glass, or bright colors. Everything is dull, gritty, and earthy–contrasting nicely with Binoche’s pearlescent skin, augmenting the romance.

The visual references we have from this period are paintings and drawings which naturally come along with certain textures. And in our psyche, this is what life looked like back then. So if a filmmaker wants her audience to relate to the images on screen and be comfortable with them, it is in her best interest to emulate a painterly aesthetic.

The strategies for this have evolved as imaging technologies have become sharper, clearer, and cleaner. In the 35mm film days, techniques included shooting on smaller formats such as 16mm and 8mm, then optically transferring that to 35mm for added texture in the final image. Using nylon stockings behind the lens or filtration in front of the lens was a common practice for softening the image. Such techniques are used today but not as often. An exposure technique known as flashing would fade and age the negative as it was exposed in-camera but that can only be done with film.

In the digital era, simply shooting on 35mm now has a perceived painterly look when compared to 4k and 8k capture, and image manipulation in post-production is very common–we can even add grain, sourced from scanned film.

To more firmly orient the viewer in this painterly world we’ll go as far as to design shots that nearly mimic a popular classic painting. Choosing one that expresses the same emotions we want our audience to feel, regardless of the exact time period. The one that stood out to me in this film was a shot of Binoche as she sits at a small desk bathed in window light writing a letter. This shot resembles some of the most famous paintings by Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer. See a comparison below.

The Horseman on the Roof Painting Reference

On the left is Vermeer’s Painting, ‘Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid’, c.1670-71. And on the right is a frame grab from the film. If you dig a little deeper into Vermeer’s work, you’ll also notice that he often used blue for his subject’s clothing.

But there is something about this film that gives me pause—should a depiction of the Cholera epidemic be so “sumptuous?” It reminds me of Photographer Sabastaio Salgado—who’s known for making fine art out of the worst human conditions. His work is outstanding—yes—but should he be depicting acute malnourished children with a romanticized black and white aesthetic? Is it honoring the subject or falsely representing the subject? I’m still trying to figure this one out. I suppose it could be an allegory for life in general–the sufferings that humans endure while also being able to live exciting and fulfilling lives. Maybe such hardships don’t necessarily make life ugly–for without the ugly, how would we know what beauty is. If everything were beautiful there would be no emphasis on beauty and if everything was bliss, there would be no emphasis on bliss. It seems yin and yang are just playing their roles. What are your thoughts?

The horseman on the Roof is currently available to purchase on Amazon.

BD – Dubbed in Spanish
DVD – French with English Subtitles
USED – Ebay – mostly DVD’s for players in the US.Additional versions are available on Amazon France. Make sure your player is compatible with the disc region.