Three interlocking stories unfold in the documentary “Sweet Dreams,” each one reinforcing the other to telling and finally joyous effect.
“Sweet Dreams” is the English translation of the Kinyawanda language phrase “inzozi nziza.” That’s the name of an ice cream shop in the small town of Butare, the first such establishment ever in the African nation of Rwanda, and the way it came to be and what it might mean for the country is story one.
It wasn’t just a random group of Rwandans who opened this shop but rather women who were part of Ingoma Nshya, translated as new kingdom or new chapter, the country’s first and only all-female drumming troupe.
This second story is a bigger deal than it may seem because until this group was formed, drumming was considered a strongly taboo activity for women. Performance footage of Ingoma Nshya opens the film, co-directed by the brother and sister team of Lisa and Rob Fruchtman, and the pleasure these women take in their vibrant, kinetic drumming and dancing is palpable.
It is the film’s third story, however, that adds special force to the first two. For this is Rwanda, after all, where nearly a million souls died in genocidal attacks in 1994, often killed by people they considered friends and neighbors. The way the filmmakers intertwine this trio of stories dealing with past, present and future makes “Sweet Dreams” an especially potent experience.
The drumming troupe was established by theater director Kiki Katese as a way to heal individuals and connect lives. “People are broken, they need to renew themselves, to rebuild their enjoyment of life,” is how she puts it. “People have to reconcile with themselves, with happiness, with life.”
These women all have, as most Rwandans do, a direct connection to the genocide. They are orphans because of it, widows because of it, even the daughters of parents imprisoned for taking part in it. The only thing the troupe demands as an entrance requirement is that participants leave the past behind while they are performing, and watching the infectious enthusiasm these women project leaves no doubt that they have.
The first part of “Sweet Dreams” deals with the formation of the drumming group and how founder Katese, in New York for a theater lab, ran across Blue Marble Ice Cream in Brooklyn and told co-owners Jennie Dundas and Alexis Miesen, “I want an ice cream shop in my town.” Much to their own surprise, the owners agreed to help.
It is only now, when the film has grounded us in the women’s drumming present and their hopes for an ice cream future, that it takes us seriously into the past, conducting intimate interviews with several of the women, who tell us their experiences in detail.
There is Leontine, who is raising the child she conceived after she was raped. There is Clementine, who feels such a strong need for what the drumming provides that she walks an hour and a half each way to the practice sessions. There is Seraphine, the only one of her family to survive the attacks.
“Sweet Dreams” also shows us a Rwanda still grappling with the aftermath of the genocide. An entire month is devoted to nationwide mourning every April, and we watch the emotional breakdowns that afflict people at a public memorial service in a large stadium. As President Paul Kagame observes, “Even some of the living are not alive.”
Once we have been immersed in their tragedies, the final third of “Sweet Dreams,” where the women deal with all manner of obstacles to the shop’s opening, resonates even more deeply. We understand more completely than ever how much that potential success means to them.
The most memorable thing about “Sweet Dreams” is that it allows us to experience the resilience, the capacity for happiness these women retain in spite of all they’ve been through. There’s a lesson there for all of us.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Playhouse 7, Pasadena