Sweet Dreams is a documentary that chronicles how a group of Rwandan women survived destruction and mass murder, and then embarked on the tenuous path of healing. Against the backdrop of the lush green Rwandan countryside, the film informs viewers that 1994 was the year of genocide in Rwanda. Later in the narrative, the historical context—referencing European colonialism—is recounted. The country had been under Belgian rule for forty years. During this time frame, the Tutsi tribe was favored over the Hutu sector. With the advent of independence, the Hutus came to power and oppressed the Tutsis. This ongoing struggle between the ethnic groups led to a government directive inciting those of Hutu origins to “do their duty and kill all Tutsis.” It is estimated that 800,000 to one million people died.
The common denominator of the film is the powerful figure of Odile “Kiki” Katese, a Rwandan theater director. With a singular vision she smashed gender barriers by founding Ingoma Nshya, an all-female drumming troupe. It was unprecedented in the nation’s history. Katese then spearheaded an initiative to bring economic independence to Rwandan women by establishing an ice cream store in their community.
Through the artistry and energy of drumming, Katese saw a channel for the many who were broken. As she related, “Bodies are moving, but inside they are dead.” The drumming group had only one rule for those who joined—no discussion of what place in the genocide they were a part of. Her goal was to construct a safe space where widows, orphans, and perpetrators would bond as individuals.
Those private stories are revealed to the audience. We learn about Marta, whose husband—from a different tribe—was killed. She had been targeted for the child she was pregnant with. Olive’s spouse is in prison for his role in taking part in the violence. As a child, Seraphine witnessed the carnage. She doesn’t know what happened to her parents. Regine, whose parents are in jail, tells of her shame and hatred toward her mother and father. She went to the families of their victims and asked to be absolved of blame. It is with them, and peers who have suffered loss that she spends April, the national month of mourning.
There is a scene devoted to the event in April, at the National Stadium, when Rwandans come together to acknowledge the tragedy. Amid the words of a formal speech being delivered by President Paul Kagame, screams and wails of pain and anguish can be heard. Many of those in overwhelming distress are taken to parked ambulances outside of the stadium.
It is the drumming, Olive explains, that “helps her.” Regine elucidates that she finds peace in drumming. She says, “That’s where I was reborn.”
The producer/director sibling team behind the documentary, Lisa and Rob Fruchtman, went beyond the story of the drumming troupe—following Katese on her journey to bring economic autonomy to the women in Butare, Rwanda. After Katese met the owners of the Brooklyn Blue Marble Ice Cream shop, Jenny Dundas and Alexis Miesen, a partnership began to initiative a co-operative of women from the drumming troupe to run an ice cream store.
As they undertake the new business venture, there are reminders of former times. Prisoners are a large part of the workforce (100,000 people were jailed for genocide activities), and they show up from a prison labor group as part of the building team.
There are disappointments, as only ten women are chosen to be part of the store’s team. Technical problems stall the ice cream machine production. The predicament is resolved and the grand opening is exhilarating. At the ribbon cutting it is said, “When you believe something is possible, it’s already done.” Nine days later, they have no customers.
Yet the women preserve. They bring the message of their drumming and store to the community. They get a break with a radio interview that promotes their performance with male drummers from Burundi. It is a boost for both their art and their business.
The drummers have been invited to play in Holland, France, Senegal, and South Africa. Currently, thirty women drummers have joined the ice cream co-op, which they now own outright. As one woman shared, “I’ve learned how I can go from a miserable life to a better one.”
Katese imparted an insight that spoke to the themes within the film. She said, “Reconciliation is not only about two people. People have to reconcile with themselves and with life.”
To learn more about the genesis of the film, I reached out to Rob Fruchtman. He answered my questions by e-mail.
How did you first hear about the work of Kiki Katese and Ingoma Nshya?
“We heard about Kiki and Jennie through an associate of an international theatre lab that they both attended. She described their fateful encounter, and we were intrigued. Soon, we were hooked on the story.”
Was the storyline originally planned to cover just the drumming troupe? When did you decide the ice cream shop would be integral to the documentary?
“We felt both story lines were important and within the theme of reconciliation and bringing joy and inspiration to Rwandans. One would have been enough, but two was a bounty!”
You deal with very specific story threads. The women’s personal experiences of the genocide, the country’s annual month of mourning, women seeking healing and gender equality through drumming, and the quest for financial autonomy for women in Rwanda. What was your process in choosing how to integrate the different elements into the narrative?
“You’ve hit on the biggest hurdle we faced in making Sweet Dreams. As we followed and filmed the women, we saw all these threads play out and were reluctant to let go of any of them because all are important to their— and Rwanda’s—journey. When we returned to the States with our mountain of footage, we had to integrate these threads in a way that made sense. We edited many scenes and included stories of several women. We tried various structures until we felt we had a version that was true to their story.”
There is a scene where a man is cutting bamboo to help construct the new ice cream store. He is using a machete. Was that shot a conscious decision to reference a tool of the murders as a symbol of rebuilding?
“It definitely was. Machetes are a tool of daily use and serve a constructive purpose in Rwandan life. We found it ironic that tools of death were also used to rebuild and create life.”
After viewing the painful footage of the aftermath of the killings in Rwanda, seeing the expressions of joy on the faces of young children enjoying ice cream is quite healing. What are your hopes for what people will take away from the film?
“We want people to see the resiliency and endurance of the Rwandan people, and realize that the horror of the genocide did not kill their spirit. It’s a story of hope. Our goal is for viewers to leave the theatre inspired to do something positive to change the world.”
This article originally appeared on the website cultureID