A harrowing and inspirational film
Trees of Peace isn’t an easy film to watch. This is partly because of the harrowing subject matter and partly because of its limited setting. Regardless, this isn’t a film that should be overlooked. We should all be made aware of the atrocities that happen in this world as the knowledge we receive can help us understand the needs of others, stir us to take action, and give us the incentive to take perspective on our own lives as we realise our worries are often minor in comparison to those with greater hardships than our own.
The film takes place during the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 when armed militia from the Hutu community brutally slaughtered men, women, and children from the Tutsi community. The subject matter has been tackled on film before, with the likes of Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs, and 100 Days offering varying perspectives on the atrocities that took place. But Trees Of Peace is rather unique as it takes place in only one location; a food storage basement where four women huddle together to hide while the murder of innocent people takes place outside of their confined space.
The basement belongs to Annick, a Hutu woman who is clearly against the actions of the menfolk from her community. Her life is as much in danger as that of the Tutsi people as she and her husband have been put on the Hutu’s extermination list for helping ‘the enemy.’
Annick shares her basement with Mutesi, a Tutsi woman, Jeanette, a nun, and Peyton, a white American woman who came to Rwanda on a Peace Corps mission. At first, the women are a little wary of one another but as they spend an extended time together, they slowly begin to bond, despite their different backgrounds.
As they sit and talk, trying to make sense of the situation they have found themselves in, the women share stories from their troubled lives. Two have been sexually assaulted, one has attempted suicide, and the other has been through several miscarriages. As tragic as these stories are, the women are able to form an attachment because of their shared sufferings.
Outside, there is the sound of gunfire and screaming as the militia murder innocent people. We rarely get to see the events that are happening outside although when the women look through the small opening in the basement wall, we do get to witness one atrocity that is reflective of the other crimes that are taking place around Rwanda.
As the days go on, the women do what they can to pass the time. They play games, read from a children’s book entitled ‘Trees of Peace,’ and offer words of encouragement to instil some measure of hope. But as their future appears bleak, there are moments when panic and resignation begin to set in. It’s at these times that the women start to bicker and fight with one another, and they have hallucinations and nightmares too.
A week trapped within the basement would be difficult enough but these women spend 81 days locked within this small space, with no apparent way to open the hatch above them. It’s not that they would want to leave anyway due to the waiting militia and the possibility of death outside. But even inside, death looms over them, as their food supplies start to diminish and their health begins to deteriorate.
The plight of these women is genuinely disturbing, more so because it’s a reflection of real-life events. While the characters at the heart of the film are fictional, they are still representative of the many women in Rwanda who went through harrowing ordeals during the time of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. As many as 1 million people were murdered but some managed to survive to tell the stories that later inspired director Alanna Brown to make this film.
It’s to the director’s credit that the single location setting doesn’t rob the film of any of its impact. She uses her camera in some creative ways, drawing in close to the women’s terrified faces when they hear the terrifying sounds of events happening outside, and pulling back to show us the difficulties of living within a constricted setting.
The four actresses playing the women at the heart of this story must also be commended. They accurately convey the anguish and fear of their characters and the film is even more heartbreaking to watch as a consequence.
While it’s not an easy watch, as I suggested at the beginning, this is still well worth seeing. This is as much a story about sisterhood and the resilience of the human spirit as it is about the atrocities of war, and as such, the film could be considered inspirational if you’re able to connect with these vulnerable but ultimately very powerful women.
Verdict - 7.5/10