Sweet Dreams, and an interview with director Rob Fruchtman

Think of Rwanda. I am betting that the association you've made with the country is probably not a nice one. But this also shows how horrific events create a suspension in time, both in the consciousness of the people involved and in the world at large. Sweet Dreams is a film aimed at breaking a negative association that overlooks the people in Rwanda focused on a positive present and future.

This is a documentary about the Ingoma Nshya drumming troupe, the first all-female drumming troupe of its kind, whose instrument was originally only played by men. Founded by Odile "Kiki" Katese, Ingoma Nshya started as a constructive, creative outlet for women who were still frozen in their pasts, or looking for ways to break out of them. After meeting Jennie Dundas from Blue Marble Ice Cream in 2009, Kiki came up with the idea of opening an ice cream shop in town, which would not only rejuvenate the town but also provide employment for some of the women. It would also bring the cool sweetness of ice cream, which was a new thing for a majority of the people there, including the women of the troupe.

As we learn more about Kiki and the troupe, and hear their stories, it soon becomes apparent that this film is not just about women, the genocide, ice cream, or drumming. It's about watching what happens when people actively set out to leave the past behind and let life continue. To let new people, experiences, and adventures come in. It's a film about using what you have right here and now, to mend relationships and really imagine the possibilities that lay ahead. That imagining is itself a difficult thing to do after going through the things the women in this film have gone through. Carrying out their dreams is nothing short of extraordinary.

It was a wonderful treat to talk to one half of the brother-sister directing team of Lisa and Rob Fruchtman about what it was like to spend time with the women of Ingoma Nshya.

CR: In an article in Al Jazeera, you mentioned the challenge of gaining the trust of everyone who participated in the film. How were you and Lisa able to establish a relationship with the women and townspeople in general as you carried out the project?

RF: There were two parts to that. Fortunately we had Kiki, who I'd met in New York, to introduce us and say, these are good people, they want to make a film about your lives, so please welcome them. Rwandans in general are very welcoming people, but I don't think they really took us seriously until our second visit. They knew the distance we crossed and the expense involved for us to come, so to come back that second time meant we were for real. When we came the third time, our friendships began to deepen. Here we were again, we talked, we brought gifts, we really established something. Our fourth visit was the most important shoot, because it was the time of the genocide commemoration period. So not only had we spent more time with everyone, but they really began to open themselves up and open their pain up to us. At that point they trusted us more with their stories. It was very important to have that relationship and that trust in place so that we weren't just these white people behind the camera to them.

CR: There is a wonderful montage in the film where the ladies who were training to work at the shop were learning about making ice cream, how business works, and taking English classes during the same period. Did all this activity spur any other projects in the town as word spread about the ladies going into business?

RF: No, but there were other little ventures happening, like a computer class that was being run in town. Alexis and Kiki and some of the others stumbled upon it when they were looking for a location for the ice cream shop, since it was a very nice building. It was open to pretty much anybody for a small fee. But after a few days they opened up the computer class and the English class for anyone who wanted to learn. Interestingly enough, Simon [the English teacher] and his wife had just shown up because they were traveling, and they found the ice cream shop and started talking to the women. They volunteered to stick around and pretty soon they were teaching English.

CR: How has the film affected the ladies at Blue Marble in Brooklyn since its release?

RF: Alexis and Jennie have actually traveled with us to several of the festivals. They love the film of course, and they've gotten many people who have come in after screenings in New York because of the film. They have two shops open, and they're just festooned with images of the women in Rwanda, of Rwanda, and there are little things where people can donate to the shop in Rwanda if they want. So when you go into the shop in Brooklyn you're kind of going into the one in Rwanda as well. They're coming with us in October to show the film in Rwanda. Four of the drummers came to the opening to New York and Amsterdam, and then they went with Lisa to a human rights conference they were invited to in Oxford. So they're the only four who've seen the film so far.

CR: The issue of a nation living with trauma comes up repeatedly in the film. Both Kiki and President Kagame compare it to a body that is just walking around, instead of being a person that is alive and living. There was a moment in the film that captured this really well, where President Kagame was giving his speech during the Mourning Month, encouraging positivity and strength, while some people screamed, cried and fainted in the stands. How did you decide how much of the genocide and how much of the present and ideas for a positive future to include in the film?

RF: We didn't want this to be a film about the genocide. There are many films about that. But any story from Rwanda has genocide as the context because you can't escape it. Everyone lived through it or their family lived through it. So we wanted it to be about these women, this new venture, these new ideas. We decided that the genocide would not leave the film, but would somehow merge organically out of the story and be part of the story. It's so easy with archival footage to make a horror show. We wanted people to get to meet the women first and get to know them, and the excitement of what they were doing before we stepped back and said, okay, let's keep in mind what they've gone through. What's behind these exquisite faces and beautiful smiles, to see what they went through and how resilient they are.

CR: Many of the people whose families were involved in committing the killings carry a tremendous feeling of guilt inside them. In the film we meet Regine, who has actively befriended and supported the people who were affected by her family's actions, as well as other victims. How did you learn about her story?

RF: It was easier in some ways for the women who were victims to tell their stories. But for the women whose parents were perpetrators was much more difficult. The conversation with Regine happened at the very end of our filming. We came over to her house for tea, and I brought the camera as I always did and I filmed some stuff, and then she said, I want to tell you something but I want you to turn off the camera. So I turned it off, and she told us her story. It was unbelievable. I said Regine, this is an important story, people need to hear this. Would you mind telling it again, I really think it's important. And she said, oh of course, I didn't think you'd be interested.

CR: What was the best moment for you while making the film, and what was the biggest challenge?

RF: There were so many moments. Early in the film when we learned that the women were invited to drum for Kagame, we were filming on the bus and they'd all started singing spontaneously. It was amazing. The biggest challenge really was getting the women to share their stories with us, to really open up. That's why it took two years. You can't really have a film unless you have the trust of your characters. I'm sure you've seen films where you didn't feel like you got close to any of the people in the film. Like they're just speaking but the words were hollow. You have to spend time. My film partner and I made a film about a shelter for addicts in the Bronx, and the only way we could get people's stories was by living there for eight months. Very few people are willing to devote that kind of time to connect, but the films that do that, you can feel it.

CR: What kind of reactions have people had to the film?

RF: The people who respond well to the film have a lot of empathy. Anyone with a soul would feel for these women, and be happy for them.

Visit the Sweet Dreams website for more on the story behind the film, the incredible women of the Ingoma Nshya drumming troupe, and all the people involved in bringing joy back to Rwanda, one sweet moment at a time.

Rob Fruchtman is an award-winning director, producer and editor. He has won three Emmys and several nominations for his work with PBS and HBO. For more on Rob's work, visit his production company's website, Glass Half Full.

Lisa Fruchtman is a director and Academy Award-winning editor who has worked in both feature film and television.

Go to Blue Marble Ice Cream's website to learn more about their shops.

My thanks again to Rob!


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