In April of 1994, the Genocide Against the Tutsi began in Rwanda, killing over 1 million people in 3 months. ‘Trees of Peace’ presents a chamber drama set in the same period. The film is inspired by true events about four women from varying backgrounds that form a bond of sisterhood amidst the chaos. After receiving praise and accolades from many film festivals over the world, this Alanna Brown directorial started streaming on Netflix this weekend. And the survival drama is every bit worthy of its praise. In the horrors they faced, the film lits a candle of hope and shows the uncommon spirit of these women.
The merciless killing of people belonging to the Tutsi race was happening in Rwanda by the Hutu extremists. That is where the narrative of Trees of Peace unfolds. As a result of this strange and chaotic atmosphere, Francois (Tongayi Chirisa) tells his wife, Annick (Eliane Umuhire) to hide in the basement of a house. When she enters that cramped-up space, she is already five months pregnant, which puts her in a hostile situation. To be living without necessities in her delicate situation is no joke. That is what makes her piece of narrative gut-wrenching.
In this small space, she is caught up with three women from different social backgrounds than hers. She belongs to the Hutu race whereas Mutesi (Bola Koleosho) trapped along with her, belongs to the Tutsi race and has gone through her share of traumas due to this identity. Besides two of them, there is a Tutsi nun called Jeanette (Charmaine Bingwa) who is trapped there, and a white, American volunteer called Peyton (Ella Cannon), who had come to Rwanda for humanitarian purposes. While in the beginning, all of them hope the ordeal will get over soon, their escape gets delayed day after day. They end up spending 81 days together with very limited food and water while fighting for survival against all the odds.
After being together for such a long time, they start opening up to one another about their lives, the hardships they faced, and the way that led them to their present situation. Their interpersonal differences get discussed in a broader context and that builds a sense of compassion between them. While they are caught up in this secluded space, their only exposure to what is happening on the streets remains to be a small space through which they get a brief window into the outside world.
Through that tiny gap, they can see and hear only bits and pieces of insanity taking place in the genocide. Yet it paints a picture of the mentality of the youth under influence of harmful, inhumane propaganda. Through what they experience, their perceptions and beliefs change, which creates a brutal impact on their psyche. How can one not get scarred while muting down every single emotion you feel and experiencing as brutal rapes and murders happening outside? As a result, the film becomes about the loss of innocence, about the impressionable youth blinded by propaganda seen through the eyes of these four women.
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The script focuses on their resilience amidst troubling circumstances. So the emotional engagement derives from how they survive and not by relying just on a probable escape and being a cheap escape thriller. Most of the film’s success is due to the same clarity of thought that makers have in presenting a poignant tale such as this one. The empathy for the survivors becomes apparent from Alanna Brown’s evocative direction. While the ominous feeling of death hangs over the entire duration they are stuck inside, the acting performances add layers to the script and enhance the emotional impact. The tiniest flicker of hope that the characters have becomes tenfold effective in communication because of them. All four performers are extremely effective throughout the duration in sustaining the tension.
The film does not show graphic images and relies on brief glimpses and sounds into what is happening in this place. The camerawork puts us physically right next to these characters and does not go out even for a moment to navigate the effects on the ground. These creative decisions help viewers to look at the troubling situation through the survivors’ state of mind and get immersed in it from their point of view. That makes this sort of execution highly commendable.