Lisa Fruchtman (center) films a new documentary in Rwanda.

'Sweet' Beat Drives Fruchtmans’ Rwanda Doc

Michael Fox September 1, 2010

Lisa Fruchtman has fashioned a splendid career cutting feature films, with an Academy Award for co-editing The Right Stuff and nominations for Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, Part III. Her roots are in documentary, however, and she was captivated by a remarkably optimistic Rwandan account she heard at the Sundance Lab last summer while serving as a feature film advisor. “You might want to make a documentary about a serious and upsetting story,” Fruchtman says, “and people may not want to come see it, or it’s been done before. I felt this had a unique set of ingredients.”

It all began with playwright Odile Gakire Katese, who founded a drumming circle in Rwanda in 2005 with women from both sides of the genocide. The project had the twin goals of healing and women’s empowerment, and was so successful that it evolved into the performing troupe Ingoma Nshya. Invited to present her latest play at the Sundance Lab in 2009, Katese (aka Kiki) met Jenny Dundas, an actor and co-founder of a Brooklyn ice cream shop named Blue Marble. Kiki proposed opening a store in Rwanda, and the Blue Marble folks agreed. A nonprofit was set up, contributions were solicited, and Sweet Dreams opened June 5 in Butare. If all goes fabulously, the outpost could lead to a chain of shops in Rwanda.

“It was an idea of bringing a layer of joy and respite, and a place [like the drumming circle] where people could come together from all sides,” Fruchtman explains. Although a scoop of ice cream may seem like a small or even trivial thing, it represents “a moment of peace and happiness, and there isn’t much in Rwanda. “

Moving quickly, Fruchtman enlisted her brother, New York-based documentary filmmaker Rob Fruchtman, as co-producer and co-director, and embarked on Sweet Dreams. An intensive bout of research led to two trips to Rwanda earlier this year, totaling 10 weeks of shooting. The first was paid for by a commission from Al Jazeera London for a 20-minute piece that airs in September in its short documentary series, Witness.

Fruchtman’s extensive editing experience prepared her in great measure for the shoots. However, she had to adjust to the difference between documentary and narrative filmmaking.

“I do have a strong sense of what one needs to put a scene together, and ultimately to put a story together,” she says. “The challenge here was that because it was real life and not actors, and because it was a situation that was extremely culturally delicate, I tried but I didn’t always succeed in setting up every scene the way I wanted it filmically.”

Consequently, the Fruchtmans were compelled to have a long, ongoing conversation on location about balancing on-the-fly filming with composed shots. 

“There’s something to be gained by verité shooting and something to be gained by being beautiful,” Fruchtman says. “Sometimes you can make it be beautiful but you’ve lost the human moment. And sometimes you have the human moment, but it’s so jagged that it doesn’t work. It’s complicated.”

The filmmakers are in the midst of editing the feature-length film, which promises to be substantially deeper and more complex than the TV segment. “The shop itself is operating on multiple levels,” Fruchtman points out. “It has an emotional function for the women involved and for the community, but it’s being set up as a profitable business.”

She readily acknowledges that the challenge is to make a film that is hopeful without being simplistic or saccharine, and at the same time confronts grievous history without being a downer.

“It has wonderfully filmic ingredients that make it accessible to people who might turn away from this subject,” Fruchtman effuses, “which is the joy and the beauty of the drumming as well as the fun and the humor and the craziness of the ice cream shop. Of course, underlying everything is the history of the genocide, and the women’s stories, which are often quite painful.”

Sweet Dreams strikes me as a perfect name, but Fruchtman confesses to a wee bit of ambivalence. “Sometimes I think it’s a great title, because when you see the movie you’ll see all the levels,” she says. “But we don’t want to be seen as making a movie about Rwanda that’s too lightweight.”

Fruchtman was born in Chicago, raised n New York, returned to Chicago for college, and stayed to do an “apprenticeship” with Kartemquin Films, the oldest film collective in the country. She worked at the National Film Board of Canada for a year before moving to San Francisco in 1973.

“I was completely interested in documentary, but I couldn’t get a job,” she recalls. “The first job I got was assistant editor on The Godfather, Part II. Then Apocalypse Now, then The Godfather, Part III. I switched, and got seduced by feature filmmaking.”

Fruchtman’s recent Bay Area editing credits include Lynn Hershman’s Teknolust and Richard Bowen’s Cantonese-language Little Sister, which premieres imminently at Toronto. As it happens, September also marks the beginning of Fruchtman’s six-month FilmHouse residency.

The Fruchtmans are co-editing Sweet Dreams, and Lisa acknowledges a need for unpaid interns. This column does not post job listings as a rule, but the opportunity to work with an Academy Award-winning editor would seem to warrant an exception. If you’re interested, contact her directly at

Notes from the Underground
Bay Area Women in Film & Media holds a benefit Tuesday. September 7, at Pixar with Geena Davis, Brenda Chapman and Katherine Sarafian conversing about “Role Playing: A Spotlight on Women’s Representation in Film, Media and Positions of Influence.” Tickets are $30; register at … Lynn Hershman’s Women Art Revolution has its world premiere September 12 at the Toronto International Film Festival. … Deann Borshay Liem’s In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee receives a national PBS broadcast Tuesday, September 14, in the POV series. Locally, KQED airs the doc at 10 p.m. … Francis Ford Coppola will receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, given to “a creative producer whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production,” from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on November 13. … Ryan Reynolds and Bradley Cooper are attached to play San Francisco cops in an action-comedy written by Sheldon Turner (Up In the Air), according to The Hollywood Reporter. At present, the project has five producers but no director or studio.

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