BERKELEY -- The most important character in producer/director Lisa Fruchtman's feature documentary, "Sweet Dreams," isn't even in the film.
Make no mistake, the 45-year-old Berkeley resident's engrossing film, sweeping awards at film festivals before its East Bay theatrical debut at Shattuck Cinemas (2230 Shattuck Ave.) on Dec. 6, follows a colorful cast through an intriguing story.
Rwandan theater director, actor and playwright Kiki Katese imagines a never-before seen or heard all-women's drumming ensemble, Ingoma Nshya. The troupe, entirely composed of women from a country where only men have been allowed rhythmic expression in the near-sacred practice, radically brings together survivors of the 1994 genocide, when approximately 800,000 Tutsis were killed by their neighboring Hutus in 100 days.
Beating their drum sticks toward healing reconciliation, the group steps off the already unconventional path when Katese discovers ice cream. Two like-minded dreamers, Jennie Dundas and Alexis Miesen of Brooklyn's Blue Marble Ice Cream, agree to help the drumming women -- many who've never had a bank account or steady employment -- open an ice cream shop in a country (Rwanda) that has never had ice cream. "Sweet Dreams" gets its sugary title from the shop's name, Inzozi Nziza, and tells the story of how an improbable treat begins to heal insufferable pain.
"Kiki's idea was to create imaginative possibilities. I was curious to see how drumming, ice cream and genocide connected. Ice cream in a country that is so traumatized? It's preposterous. We didn't even do preproduction, we just got on a plane," Fruchtman says.
It didn't hurt that she and her co-director/brother Rob, flew to Rwanda packing a hefty load of experience. Fruchtman's brother won the 2002 Sundance Film Festival Documentary Director award for "Sister Helen," just one of the many documentaries and television programs he has directed or produced. Fruchtman had never directed a film before making "Sweet Dreams," but her editing has won her an Oscar ("The Right Stuff") and Academy Award and Emmy nominations ("The Godfather Part III," "Apocalypse Now," and HBO's "Truman").
"We started in January 2010. We shot for a year-and-a-half, visiting four times for about six weeks each time," she recalls. "I'm used to the luxury of the editing world. The real world of documentary means your craft has to be at the ready, observant. And because of the language difference, we often didn't know if what we were filming was going to be useful."
The documentary was recorded with two Sony XE1 high-definition cameras and cloned onto hard drives for editing with Final Cut Pro -- Fruchtman in California and her brother at his East Coast home -- the siblings fired cross-continental updates back and forth for nearly a year. Funding arrived from the Berkeley Film Foundation, the Pioneer Fund, Aljazeera English, and four "angel" investors. The film made its debut in New York City in 2012, at the Rwanda genocide's 18th commemoration at the United Nations headquarters.
"We didn't think we were done editing, but we showed it and the response was so phenomenal, we decided it was done," Fruchtman says.
The innocent sounding synopsis -- women drummers beat new path as ice cream entrepreneurs -- belies the film's rich, soul-shifting understory.
Two-thirds of the way through, the psychological egg shell cracks and the women open up; telling their desperate stories of 1994's lacerating, hope-stripping violence.
Fruchtman says the genocide was an invisible, ever-present character. "Everyone we met had been impacted by it," she remembers.
A climactic scene at the National Stadium, where the country's grief-stricken men, women and children begin an annual, 100-day period of mourning, was so traumatic the Fruchtmans waited a full year before filming it.
"People became so hysterical they couldn't speak -- nothing prepares you for that shoot," Fruchtman says. "But we didn't want to make a didactical film. The humanity and humor of the smaller story allows you to enter the film in a way that a straightforward film on Rwanda might not."
Like all memorable films, the initial agenda for "Sweet Dreams" was a good story. It's a significant bonus that the Fruchtmans' sleek, light-handed cinematography and deft, sophisticated editing deliver an equally palatable social justice message. Fruchtman says, simply, "The film makes people see the world differently: I love that."
The ice cream shop has had its ups and downs, but is enduring, she says. The drumming troupe has been honored with awards and invited to perform at a number of venues in Rwanda and other countries. With adequate box office response, the filmmakers are hoping to fan "Sweet Dreams" across the globe, sharing Rwanda's good-rising-out-of-hard-circumstances news.