The road to reconciliation is paved with vanilla beans in “Sweet Dreams,” which follows a group of Rwandan women as they endeavor to open the first ice-cream shop in a country where the frozen dessert is something more rumored than known. In documenting this improbable mission, directors Lisa and Rob Fruchtman have made a valuable and affecting addition to the burgeoning canon of post-genocide Rwanda portraits, which should see ample broadcast exposure following its Oscar-qualifying theatrical runs this month.
Although the 1994 genocide and its aftermath have been explored extensively in both narrative and nonfiction films over the past decade (especially documentarian Anne Aghion’s remarkable suite of films culminating in 2009’s “My Neighbor My Killer”), “Sweet Dreams” nevertheless forges its own path, dwelling less on the violent crimes of the past than on the small but meaningful ways in which a once-divided people are working to rebuild the social and psychological health of their country. The docu begins by introducing us to the women of Ingoma Nshya, the first all-female drumming troupe in a country where women were once forbidden to drum (not for any sacred reason, notes the troupe’s founder, Kiki Katese, but simply because it was believed the drums were too heavy for women to carry).
Having proved the naysayers wrong on that point, Katese — an irrepressible optimist who never takes no for an answer — wastes little time in moving on to her next project. During a visit to New York, she happens upon the artisanal Brooklyn confectioner known as Blue Marble Ice Cream and proposes that co-owners Jennie Dundas and Alexis Miesen help her and her drummers to open a Rwandan outpost named Inzozi Nziza (literally “Sweet Dreams”). The corporate slogan — also a statement of intent — reads: “Ice Cream. Coffee. Dreams.”
It’s a venture that proves easier said than done. At every step, the sort of franchise that might appear overnight in any suburban American town becomes a Sisyphean struggle, from the organizing of the women into an employee-owner collective to the importing of the ice-cream equipment itself (which, in turn, fails to function properly upon arrival). Against this, the Fruchtmans — she the Oscar-winning editor of “The Right Stuff,” he the veteran director of such docus as “Sister Helen” and “Trust Me” — juxtapose the personal narratives of the women themselves, related in intimate first-person testimonies. Some are Tutsis whose families perished in the fighting; others are the wives and daughters of Hutu men now serving prison sentences for their crimes.
It’s a lot of material to juggle, but “Sweet Dreams” finds and sustains a delicate balance, seizing on small moments of hope in a place where the horrors of 1994 are in many ways still an open wound. So the women of Ingoma Nshya seem all the more remarkable as they lift their drums, their spoons, and perchance an entire nation’s spirits.