Certainly one of the most uplifting documentaries about genocide you’ll ever see, “Sweet Dreams” tells the story of a group of women who, with a drum act and an ice cream shop, establish some female firsts in Rwanda and begin to overcome the hell of recent history.
An efficient interweaving job and a remarkable story make up for a conventional presentation of the material in this journey of post-genocide recovery and female advancement, directed by Lisa and Rob Fruchtman.
In the nearly two decades that have passed since the events of 1994, when 800,000 minority Tutsis were killed by Hutu neighbors, friends and, sometimes, family, Rwanda has been quicker to restore its economy than its psyche.
“People aren’t like roads and buildings,” says Kiki Katese, a theater-world dynamo and terrific documentary subject.
Katese’s reconciliation-focused projects include Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s first and only female drumming troupe. About 60 women, both Tutsi and Hutu, pound out percussive numbers with attention-grabbing passion in this country where women aren’t supposed to drum.
A second transformative journey begins when Katese, hoping to boost troupe members’ financial independence, partners with Brooklyn-based Blue Marble ice cream entrepreneurs Jennie Dundas and Alexis Miesen.
The goal is to create Rwanda’s first ice cream shop and run it as a cooperative.
The film chronicles the development of this enterprise, from finding a location to learning how to run a business to mastering the art of ice cream making.
Snags occur en route to opening day. The equipment fails, for starters, and Rwanda doesn’t exactly teem with ice cream-machine repairmen.
Small in scope and limited in directorial originality, the film isn’t a wallop. But sibling filmmakers — Lisa is an Oscar-winning editor (credits include “Apocalypse Now”), Rob is an Emmy-winning director (“Sister Helen”) — present moving testimonies about Rwanda’s horror, a wonderful double-triumph story, engrossing fly-on-the-wall close-ups of cooperative decision-making and rousing doses of drumming.
They entwine these elements into an affecting remembrance of past tragedy and celebration of human spirit.
Business meetings where the women, new to the process, find themselves discussing issues such as paying dues or whether to allow a fired worker to teach them to make a tasty sabusa are particularly noteworthy.
The film also captures the reverberations of genocide in both Rwandan and universal terms and illustrates why a nation must address its past in order to truly heal.
The stories of loss and survival stick with you. One woman talks about the killing of her Tutsi husband. Another recalls learning that her parents were killers. Emotion pours forth during the annual month of mourning.
Conversely, contagious joy abounds in this film, whether its subjects are drumming, singing, dancing or sharing vanilla ice cream with locals who have previously seen the stuff only in the movies.
As the quotable Katese puts it, “Reconciliation is not about two peoples. People have to reconcile with themselves, with happiness, with life.” Fittingly released during the holiday season, “Sweet Dreams” demonstrates this sentiment irresistibly.
Starring Kiki Katese, Jennie Dundas, Alexis Miesen
Directed by Lisa Fruchtman, Rob Fruchtman
Running time 1 hour, 24 minutes