Big Screen Berkeley: Sweet Dreams

Sweet Dreams
Produced in part by the Berkeley Film Foundation, Sweet Dreams falls into the ‘feel good’ documentary category.

I have to admit I didn’t expect to be writing about another Rwanda documentary this year, but here we are. After being featured in cycling epic Rising from Ashes in a September review, the central African nation returns to the Big Screen Berkeley spotlight only three months later, this time in the form of Sweet Dreams, a locally grown feature opening Friday, December 6th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.

Produced and directed by siblings Lisa and Rob Fruchtman – she, a resident of Berkeley and Academy Award winner for her editing work on The Right Stuff (1983); he, a Sundance Best Director winner for Sister Helen (2002); each a veteran of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) – Sweet Dreams offers another perspective on Rwandan efforts to recover from the genocide of 1994. This time, bicycles are nowhere in evidence, here replaced by traditional drums and decidedly non-traditional ice cream scoops.

The Fruchtmans’ film focuses on Ingoma Nshya, a female drum troupe whose members include women widowed or orphaned by the war as well as relatives and children of both perpetrators and victims of the genocide. The group is more than just a method of healing, however – it also provides Rwandan women their first opportunity to break new ground and participate in what, until now, has been a traditionally male activity.

So far, so routine – but here’s the film’s wrinkle: when they’re not drumming, the members of Ingoma Nshya sell ice cream as a sideline. Not only are they Rwanda’s only female drummers, they’re also the owners and operators of the country’s one and only ice cream parlor, Inzozi Nzima.

While drumming is the frame around which Sweet Dreams is constructed, its foundation is Ingoma Nshya’s efforts to overcome significant obstacles and establish a business unlike any other in their home town of Butare. Assisted by Jennie Dundas and Alexis Miesen (owners of a gourmet Brooklyn creamery), the women must rent space, import and learn how to use an ice cream machine, and convince their fellow Rwandans that the sweet treat is something worthy of their not so copious disposable income.

Produced in part by the Berkeley Film Foundation, Sweet Dreams definitely falls into the ‘feel good’ documentary category, though there are frequent reminders of the disaster that befell Rwanda almost twenty years ago. I couldn’t help but feel that it’s also – perhaps unintentionally – a commercial for free-market capitalism, which left me ever so slightly uncomfortable. That said, you can’t help but appreciate and admire the efforts of these fearless and dedicated women.

Footnote: perhaps it’s unavoidable in a country as small as this one, but it seems that President Paul Kagame often seems to have an over-sized presence in films about Rwanda. It’s important to remember that, despite his government’s public relations efforts, Kagame remains an extremely contentious figure.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.