A powerful documentation of the endurance of the human spirit in the wake of devastation and tragedy.
In 1994, Rwanda was devastated by the genocide that saw the country’s Hutus slaughter nearly 1 million Tutsis in a vengeful, horrific act of malice. Rwanda has been on the mend to this day, striving to redefine itself and rise from the ashes of the massacre. In the spirit of healing and reinvention, a group of women–some widows, some orphans, some Hutus, some Tutsis–formed Rwanda’s first female drum troupe, Ingoma Nshya, breaking tradition and inspiring Rwandans to dream big. Then, in an unlikely partnership with the owners of Blue Marble Ice Cream from New York, they dared to dream bigger (and sweeter) with the opening of Rwanda’s very first ice cream shop, Inzozi Nziza (Sweet Dreams.)
With Rwanda rebuilding, the drum troupe, and the ice cream shop–three wildly disparate storytelling elements–one might think Sweet Dreams doomed to be a disjointed mess of a documentary, but sibling directors Lisa and Rob Fruchtman’s melding of the three story lines is as smooth as the spoon of ice cream hitting Rwandan lips for the first time (one of many delightful moments the Fruchtmans captured on film.) The women drummers are constantly pushing the boundaries and breaking new ground, resulting in an example of optimistic entrepreneurship Rwandans can aspire to, and it makes for a damn fine film.
It’s empowering to watch these strong women (who most Rwandan men previously thought weren’t strong enough to even pick up the drums) bang on their instruments in unison, beaming smiles stretched across their faces as they rumble the soil once stained with blood. To see Hutus and Tutsis share such a joyful experience is a powerful image. When the Fruchtmans switch gears and introduce the ice cream shop scenario, it’s admittedly a jolting switch; what the hell does ice cream have to do with drumming? Sure, the terrific extended scene in which the Blue Marble Brooklynites scramble madly to fix the shop’s ice cream machine (which has broken down just days before opening) is potent drama and a well-crafted sequence, but how does it harmonize with the larger themes at play?
As the Fruchtmans churn the images of the bombastic drum performances and the fanciful ice cream shop, it gradually begins to click that these two ostensibly discordant projects actually represent the same thing; a new Rwanda, where things as “frivolous” as ice cream and drumming are beacons of hope that can help heal a bruised people.
Focusing on a handful of members from Ingoma Nshya, most notably Kiki, the beloved, kind-hearted matron of the group who got the ball rolling on forming the co-op that would eventually open the shop. Her relationship with the Blue Marble ladies, Jennie Dundas and Alexis Miesen (who is present through most of the scenes in the shop) isn’t fleshed out as much as would seem appropriate. Kiki’s proposition to them, after all, was the catalyst for the entire operation (and, subsequently, this film.) The arduous whittling down of the co-op members to 10 Inzozi Nziza employees provides the narrative momentum for the feature, but it seems exploring more thoroughly the genesis of the project might have been just as interesting (if not more.)
Marta, one of the more charismatic members of the troupe, is a charmer, always exuding a sunny attitude in both her speech and her drumming. Her demeanor is overwhelmingly life-affirming, considering the hell and horrors she and the other women have endured. The memory of the genocide is present in the film and given its due respect, but it doesn’t dwell on it, mirroring the hopeful attitude of its subjects.
The film is mostly un-stylized (save for a few reenactments of the genocide), with Lisa (an industry veteran whose editing work includes Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate) and Rob letting their editing chops and their subjects get the point across. It’s a wise approach; the vibrant, gorgeous Rwandan landscape and its inspirational people are in no need of embellishment. Sweet Dreams is a powerful documentation of the endurance of the human spirit in the wake of devastation and tragedy. In an utterly uplifting and delightful scene, one of the girls from the shop rides around town on the back of a truck, proclaiming to her fellow Rwandans through a speakerphone that “it’s ice cream, and it will change your life! Hey hey hey!” Right on, girl.