Comparing Sweet Dreams to the claptrap currently taking stranglehold on many of the nation's cineplexes is a bit like comparing a perfect scoop of ice cream to a cup of sugar water. In fact, Sweet Dreams, one of the most satisfying documentaries of this or any other season, reminds us of something we learned as children: Ice cream may not solve all of the world's problems, but it sure doesn't hurt .
I cannot urge you enough to take this important, adept and highly emotional cinematic journey with sibling directors Lisa and Rob Fruchtman--she, the Oscar-winning editor of Apocalypse Now and The Right Stuff; he the Emmy-winning director of documentaries Sister Helen and Seeing Proof. And the Fruchtmans' destination is considerable: Rwanda, a nation of great natural beauty but ill-defined by its late 20th century genocide, robbing nearly 1 million families of fathers, mothers, daughters and sons.
I'm a fan of previous films that have explored the Rwandan tragedy, including 2004's Hotel Rwanda and the 1997 documentary When Good Men Do Nothing, so I must admit I had some reluctance to revisiting this theme in yet another movie. But the journey of Sweet Dreams is along a road less-traveled: a specific, but unlikely, tale of nourishment for the body and soul.
Only a decade removed from the tribe-versus-tribe/neighbor-versus-neighbor genocide, Rwanda's population--now primarily young and female--still has fresh and quite deep scars. In Sweet Dreams, we meet, one by one, the women who take this journey with us: Marta, whose husband from a different tribe was murdered while she was hunted because she was carrying his child; Clementine, who only recently returned to her native country of Rwanda after being pawned off, at the age of 11, to be a servant to Congolese; Olive, whose husband is in jail for war crimes; and Leontine, raped at 14 and now a single mother of two. Each lives a bare existence, a prisoner of her own memories.
In one powerful scene, we watch thousands pack into the National Stadium of Rwanda to honor the dead. It's chilling to note that Rwandans now take the entire month of April to mourn their ever-present losses.
"Even some of the living are not alive," Rwandan President Paul Kagame tells the packed stadium. In the background we hear people collapsing into hysteria and being taken away by ambulances.
The women of Sweet Dreams are not only alive but have found a way to truly live, first by forming a spectacular all-female drumming group, Ingoma Nshya, which has recently begun touring to and performing in other nations. And then, by opening Inzozi Nziza (literally translated as "sweet dreams), a first-of-its-kind ice cream shop in the small Rwandan village of Butare.
The Rwandan women's fairy godmothers come in the form of Jennie Dundas and Alexis Miesen, who own and operate Blue Marble Ice Cream half-a-world away in Brooklyn.
After hearing about the Rwanda women's plight and their desire to create frozen dreams, the New York pair packed their bags and traveled to Rwanda, where they taught the women new skills, such as marketing and the commercial manufacture of ice cream, while reminding the women of some some themes that remain universal: ethics, co-operative management and perseverance.
But when the ice cream equipment arrives on the scene, worse for the wear from its bumpy shipment, none of the machinery seems to be working. And with just days until their opening of the shop, only warm, milky goo comes out of the dispensers. Meanwhile, the Rwandan women take the calculated risk of reaching out to a local prison, where they ask some of the inmates--many of them convicted murderers--to construct some new tables and chairs for the shop's outside patio.
But more heartbreak is in store when the women learn that only 10 of them can be employed at the ice cream shop. And when Sweet Dream's final list of 10 workers is announced to the village ... well, let me put it this way: I can't remember crying this much at a film in quite some time.
Ultimately, the women of Sweet Dreams choose unique names for their three ice cream-cup sizes: Baby for small, Be Happy for medium and Don't Be Cheap for the large.
Suffice to say, there is so much joy in Sweet Dreams. It will fill your heart, give your soul plenty to nibble on and should, no doubt, catapult you to the nearest ice cream stand. The ice cream may or may not melt; but be forewarned, your heart definitely will.