In Sweet Dreams, a white lady from Brooklyn travels to Africa to show a group of women how to heal their ravaged nation with the joy of ice cream. This sounds like an uplifting Hollywood drama attempting to filter a look at the aftermath of the Rwandan civil war and genocide through an identifiable American protagonist. But it’s a documentary. The American is not some heroine out to do good for self-satisfying reasons and is hardly even a major figure of the film, and the audience is never forced to feel anything about what she or the Rwandan women do or say. There is the idea of hope being manifested in the opening of an ice cream shop, though, and that never ceases to be a strange premise, not just for the movie but for the country.
First we’re introduced to the 60 women in Rwanda, a mix of Hutu and Tutsi who’ve formed an internationally renowned drumming troupe called Ingoma Nshya. These women are mostly victims of the country’s disaster by way of their husbands, who if they’re Tutsis were slaughtered and if they’re Hutus were imprisoned for taking part in the slaughter. Some of the younger subjects are too young to have been married at the time but maybe have children by way of being raped, or their parents were murdered or murderers. There isn’t one who isn’t living with unending trauma in the wake of tragedy, and that’s how we see the people of Rwanda as a whole. They’re described and shown as basically a nation of zombies, either still stunned by the killings and “dead inside” or forced to labor as one of the more than 100,000 war criminals.
Nearly 20 years off from the genocide, it’s impossible to find stories and characters not informed and crippled by it in such a small country — and one we see collectively facing it all together in an annual month of mourning led by President Kagame. We meet a number of the drummers individually as they briefly tell their heartbreaking backstory straight to the camera, most ending understandably in tears. In the middle is Kiki Katese, who started the troupe (the first and only consisting of women) to be an outlet of emotion, a new family and support system, a bit of female empowerment and a means of just feeling alive again. All of this alone could have been the focus of a film and audiences would still have a lot to find inspiring and moving. But Kiki wanted to do more for her sisters in music and also offer something fresh and new for the locals to get excited about.
For that next step, she goes to New York and asks the two businesswomen behind Blue Marble Ice Cream (whose wares I can attest are really tasty) to join her in the city of Butare and help start a parlor to be run as a co-op by members of the troupe. These successful American entrepreneurs (Jennie Dundas and Alexis Miesen) accept the challenge and opportunity to do some good themselves, and the rest of the movie features a lot of scenes of teaching and training, as employees and initial co-op partners are picked from among the 60, and there are little obstacles in the form of a soft-serve machine not working properly and furnishings for the shop (called Inzozi Nzizi, or “Sweet Dreams”) that might not be ready in time for the opening. But it plays out more exciting than it sounds. At one point I realized I was kind of on the edge of my seat wondering if the Rwandans would like this cold treat they’d only heard about from movies.
The excitement for this odd startup is achieved not necessarily from the simple exotic appeal of seeing a people encounter something unknown and bewildering but mostly through the work of sibling filmmakers Lisa Fruchtman (Oscar-winning editor of The Right Stuff and nominee for Apocalypse Now and The Godfather Part III) and Rob Fruchtman (a former Hollywood sound editor who earned a DGA nomination for co-directing the 2002 doc Sister Helen), who build our interest and anticipation with genuine character moments of pridefulness and determination and through these moments an earned sentimentality. It’s somewhere between actually watching the beginnings of a small business, the actual logistical and economical and operational details of which would be tedious to sit through, and viewing a dramatically vague take on the process, as we’d see in a Hollywood montage treatment of getting it all together.
It is ultimately difficult to see what a little ice cream shop will do for an entire nation, other than maybe inspire and encourage them in a capitalistic sense. Sweet Dreams sometimes unintentionally plays out like in the end the business will itself save Rwanda from all its problems. Yet it never sells Katese as anything remotely close to someone deserving a peace prize or anything like that. This is a small story that feels bigger because it’s inescapably a part of the greater Rwandan narrative, more so to be unavoidably lumped in with films concentrated solely on the war and genocide. Still, as a part of that narrative we’re given the first step towards moving into split-off stories that aren’t so tied to the past.
The women’s drumming is always going to represent cultural progress and will continue to come from emotional response. But ice cream is inessential and gratifying in a way that is only about the taste and enjoyment of ice cream. It’s not a metaphor. And that’s what makes the story an actual signal of real hope rather than a representational illustration of hope in the abstract.
Sweet Dreams is now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York City.