Movies about genocide can range from disturbing cinematic masterpieces to truculent sentimental exploitation. It’s a fine line wherein an artist is exploring the horrors of humanity committing unthinkable and unspeakable acts while also trying to make, to some extent, a gorgeous movie that manipulates and moves us. I mention this because I found myself holding my breath throughout the breadth of Tress of Peace. Both because of the film and the nagging fear that it would reveal itself as Christian propaganda or slip into sanctimonious sermonizing.
Alanna Brown’s Trees of Peace eschews easy answers while also wrestling with a fundamental question: How does one keep their humanity when all around them all they see is inhumanity? Brown’s film explores how four women hid in a fruit cellar during the Rwandan genocide while never succumbing to cheap theatrics.
Trees of Peace spends most of its time in a small cellar beneath a house, barely big enough for the four women to stand on their knees.
Brown uses Michael Rizzi’s camera in several ways, from stylishly overt to subtle frame compositions and blocking. Additionally, the four women, Annick (Eliane Umuhire), Jeanette (Charmaine Bingwa), Mutesi (Bola Koleosho), and a white American woman named Peyton (Ella Cannon), are the only characters we ever fully see.
Annick is Hutu, while Mutesi and Jeanette are Tutsi; Peyton is at first a typical white American college girl trying to find herself in a “far off foreign land.” But the four are united in their struggle to survive what turns out to be a months-long hellscape: 100 days.
For those who do not know, the Rwandan genocide was an instance that saw over a million Tutsi people murdered by the Hutus, often with machetes. It is a violent and horrific chapter not just in Rwanda’s history but global history, as the rest of the world stood by and watched. Moreover, it is a sobering reminder that colonialism’s roots have long-ranging consequences.
Brown doesn’t hold your hand, so some knowledge beforehand would be required, but she also frames the incidents so that all you need to know is that they happened. While it could be adapted into a play, Brown, who also wrote the script, is cinematic. She utilizes Rizzi’s lens to frame scenes in such a way as to make us feel the isolation and desperation. Yet, she is never exploitative in her approach to the bloodshed and horrific violence the characters witness outside the tiny cellar window.
Like Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, there is an unease in how we are unsure of the lay of the land. As opposed to omitting any establishing shots such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, we are never shown much of Annika’s house or outside. Instead, Brown keeps us confined to the cellar and our world, like the four women, is so tiny as to be discombobulating.
We enter the cellar, and at times Rizzi movies his camera around, but the layout is something we are never quite sure of. We only know it is cramped; Brown and Rizzi make the claustrophobia visceral.
The women do not start as friends, but as strangers. The fact that they do not know each other merely adds another layer of discomfort to a film dedicated to exploring how fractured we as individuals can be in times of crisis.
The only man we see is Annika’s husband, Francois (Tongayi Christa). He returns every so often to bring food. The women have huddled alone, forced to acknowledge and understand each other. Mutesi, a Tutsi, is suspicious of Annika and her husband. Though they claim to be Hutu moderates, the horrors outside their window suggest that “moderate” holds little comfort to the Tutsis.
Jeannette is a nun who soon realizes her faith rests on pious slogans and trite sentiments. Her belief is fascinating, for it evolves as the movie goes along. Brown allows Jeanette mercy, something the character does not grant to herself or even her own mother. By the end, she has become a kinder, more merciful woman to others but, more importantly, to herself.
Brown does not use the Rwanda massacre as a backdrop but as a lens to look at the basic prejudices and beliefs we all hold. The Catholic woman who preaches to others never to judge suddenly finds herself judging Peyton when she discovers she tried to kill herself. The look on Peyton’s face as she stares in disbelief that Jeanette could sit amid genocide and tell someone that the greatest sin is taking one’s life is a sublime moment on Brown’s part.
She never belabors the point. There is no scene following about the hypocrisies of religion. Instead, Brown leaves it to us to mull over. The women struggle to survive both the situation and their inner turmoil. Atrocities strip away our humanity, so we must fight to save what little of it that survives. That is what makes Trees of Peace so breathtaking. It looks at the message of love and forgiveness without ever giving in to saccharine-sweet melodramatic sentimentality, despite the title and main message being based on a children’s book.
However, Trees of Peace never infantilizes the women. They are complicated characters with conflicting ideas that they try to reconcile within themselves. The world is falling apart, and they are trying their best not to do the same.
Brown’s dialogue is a gift to the actors. At times it becomes a sort of poetic prose. In a letter to her unborn son, Annika writes of Jeanette, “She is a woman who claims her anger like her name.” Throughout their time in the cellar, the women will have to confront not just the crumbling of their very notion of civilization but themselves. For it is here that Brown understands that if we are to have mercy for others, we must first have it for ourselves.
Righteous anger is a fire that drives us, but if we are not careful, it can consume us. As a result, these women have suffered trauma in one form or another.
Peyton’s confession unveils the complexity of the trauma uniting the women. She killed her little brother while driving drunk, exiling herself from her family, and tried to kill herself before running to Rwanda to try and lose herself. The pious Jeanette did nothing to stop her father from raping her mother. Just as the furious, Mutisi cannot forgive the villagers and her family who stood idly by while her Uncle raped her. Annika has suffered her own trauma, four miscarriages, and worries that her current pregnancy could go the same way while also carrying the burden of not doing enough to battle her fellow Hutu’s belief in supremacy.
Brown shrewdly shows how unimaginable tragedy can wear away at our basic human decency, creating a scarcity of kindness. On one occasion, Francois tells Annika he must leave; he has other supplies he must deliver. Annika is stunned; there’s more food, but not for them. Francois is helping others in hiding, and while the women understand this, it means less to them. They cry out for Francois to return before he closes the cellar door. It is easy to call them selfish, but Brown makes us understand that we are only humans, even those we deem tremendous and heroic, who survive atrocities like the Rwandan genocide.
The four actors are so generous with each other’s performances that it is hard to say one performance is better than another. They work in concert, creating believable moments of anger, sadness, and collective understanding. It could not have been an easy movie to film, as the women portrayed are real, to say nothing of what it must do to a person to act in a film that takes place in a genocide.
Bingwa’s Jeanette, however, for me, is a fascinating character. Perhaps my own struggles with my faith draw me to her. I only know that I found her performance touching. In particular, the way she would tighten her lip, an attempt to hold back the screams of anguish at the unraveling world around her.
Brown embraces the surreal. After all, what could be more surreal than witnessing the destruction of everyday life? Annika has a dream where her water breaks, forcing her into labor while the other women try to silence her. It is a dream sequence but plays out like an out-of-body experience mixed with a nightmare.
Trees of Peace constantly remind us of how many days have passed so that we can understand how time seems to stand still when nothing changes. At one point, Francois says he will be back in a day, and we wait with agonizing anticipation as two days pass.
Trees of Peace delves into its story without any setup. Like the four women, we are plunged into uncertainty and self-imposed hiding. Brown doesn’t make Trees of Peace easy to watch, nor does she make it impossible for non-fil fans to appreciate.
She is not interested in easily digestible answers and pithy sermons. Instead, Brown and Rizzi’s camera shows us the inner turmoil of four women facing a horror they’ve never dreamed of and never once creates unnecessary drama or manufactures conflict to satisfy a story beat. It’s that grit of humanity that gives Trees of Peace its searing quality.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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