"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Monday, April 15, 2013

AIFF 2013: Sweet Dreams (film review)

"Suffering and survival: A decade of women in Africa" shouted a Guardian (UK) article headlined on the Internet today--adding, for the faint of heart, "warning: graphic content".

Well, make room for...

We're so used to horrific tales of women's suffering in "Africa" (so many countries, how can we group them all together really?) that it is almost confusing to encounter the first images of this new documentary set in Rwanda. There on the large screen, seemingly larger than life women in swirling, colorful African textiles danced and drummed, and their faces were infused with a joy that brought tears to my own. How beautiful! And how transcendent. How very real. 

These are women who survived the genocidal civil war of 17 years ago. When it ended, one of them started the drumming troupe. Traditionally women were not even allowed to come near to drums; it was a male domain, but the war broke a lot of traditions and apparently it also brought, in the shock of its wake, opportunities. In the Q&A following the screening, a woman in the audience asked the filmmaker (Bob Fruchtman, who co-produced and directed with Lisa Fruchtman) whether the women had encountered a backlash for breaking tradition; he said there had been some resistance but no, not really. They were taught in the beginning by one of the country's greatest male drummers, and then they surpassed him. (Later, when we see traditional male drummers in a joint performance with the women's group, it's clear that the women have developed their own distinctive style.)

The "sweet dreams" of the title refer to the idea of forming a co-op, consisting of members of the drumming group, to begin a money-making business-- Rwanda's first ice cream shop. With the assistance of two women who run an organic ice cream shop in New York City, and many others, they visit other co-ops -- honey, dairy -- and learn the basics of business. A modern soft-ice cream machine is donated by a group in South Africa, they fix up a building, choose co-op members, and (after some nail-biting glitches) open on time. Those are the bare bones of the news story. 

For me, three underlying elements of the narrative have me still thinking about the film a week later.

First, of course, are the women. They are beautiful, they are strong, they are charming, and they are full of joy in their new lives. Their war stories are of course terrible and terribly sad, but as the film takes place 17 years later and they have truly moved on to better lives, their histories are fascinating. One had been sent to another country when she was a young child--sold into servitude by her poverty-stricken parents. When Rwanda's war ended she returned as a young adult to find her mother widowed, and lives with her now. Another woman barely survived the massacre of her family as a small child by running into the jungle; she was briefly sheltered by strangers at the risk of their own lives, starved, and finally was found by a man (we might expect the worse, but no - he took her to an orphanage, where she grew up). Each woman has a different story, of course, and bit by bit they unfold, past and present intertwined  Wisely, the filmmakers chose not to include coverage of the Rwanda civil war (for anyone who does not remember it, I suppose) until well into the film, and it's not extensive. The real story here is the present.

The second theme that really intrigued me was the way Rwanda leaders established a template for dealing with the trauma of the past, and for moving beyond it. Every year the entire month of April (with the first week a complete holiday from work) is dedicated to remembrance, grieving, and building new ties between these people whose neighbors and family members were victims or perpetrators. During the course of the film the President invites the drummers to perform in one such ceremony in the national stadium, where we see that even now first aid, ambulances, and counselling are very much needed, as many of the attendees are overcome with emotion.

Immediately following the war, 100,000 "perpetrators" were identified; they remain imprisoned and are used as labor to rebuild the country. Two of them are the parents of one of the women in the co-op. Her fellow co-op members could have been their victims. In building the drumming troupe and now the ice cream shop, they are all moving beyond that past and finding new ways to live, with joy, in the present and future. It seems that the rest of the world could learn much from Rwanda and what it has learned about reconciliation. 

Co-op members at organizational meeting
The third theme that sticks with me-- but this one troubles me -- is the commercial venture of the ice cream shop itself, or rather, the way they go about it. The women are mentored in a hard-line western capitalistic model by -- I forget the details here, but she's an American woman who seems very inflexible. The Rwandan women eagerly absorb her lessons about business plans and so forth, but also, it appears, her top-down attitude. Later, when they must limit the number of co-op members to begin the business to those who can afford a hefty buy-in fee, and reject a number of women from the dance troupe who want to participate but cannot afford the fee, it's very sad. (In the post-screening Q&A a member of the audience asked the filmmaker about that, and he responded that as the events unfolded he was hoping the women would create some sort of "sweat equity" arrangement for the women who couldn't afford the buy-in fee, but the leaders chose to be "very hard-nosed" instead. Later, as the business prospered and more positions opened up, some did join though.) 

Dolley Madison stored her ice
beneath this "temple"
Another aspect of the business that troubled me was the complicated machine they used for making soft ice cream. Apparently this was the same sort of equipment used in New York and it was a donation. But to get this high-tech monster going seemed to require large amounts of fossil fuels and expertise. I couldn't help thinking back to my time working in the gardens of the historic James Madison estate, Montpelier, where they still spoke proudly of how Dolley Madison had introduced ice cream to local society. It was a huge hit. All they needed for Dolley's product was ice, which was collected in winter and stored underground, below a gazebo, all summer. That, and the same ingredients used in Rwanda. The manufacturing process was completely low-tech. The Rwandans didn't have easy access to ice, but I couldn't help thinking they could have started with a wind or solar power source for basic refrigeration to freeze water, and as for the rest, might been as happy with old-fashioned ice cream.

It also gave me pause to see how the women take readily to the tricks and deceptions of advertising. We laugh when they compete with, and out-do, each other in coming up with advertising slogans such as "it will make your children healthy," and we have to admire their creativity and sense of humor - but ... well, it's just a little creepy how easily they adopt this aspect of Western culture which has made uncritical nincompoops of most of the population here.

The crux of the matter is the co-op's desire for "modernization" and "development" (words used repeatedly by the Africans) in the context of their country's rise. Though they do have co-ops, basically they seem to be following a very recognizable Western model which incorporates the same values that colonized Africa and are currently making serfs of us all worldwide. I felt very sad that they are jumping onto the industrial-civilization-fossil fuel train just as it is heading toward a catastrophic (if possibly slow-motion) derailment.

But at the same time, they're living in the moment, as we all do, and they did create something wonderful. The first ice cream in Rwanda! Whatever rogue waves the future might bring, these women are likely to surf them with strength and joy. May we all do as well.

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