The Netflix film Trees of Peace is set during the 1994 Rwandan genocide; focusing on four women who hide together in a cellar, hoping the violence will pass them by. From a small window at ground level, they witness the atrocities just outside. Produced by Nicole Avant and directed by Allana Brown, both African American women, it is a low-budget film that might test the attention span of viewers who are not already disposed to be interested in the topic of the Rwandan genocide. But the film in fact does a good job giving a perspective into this important historical event from the point of view of those trapped in an impossible situation.
“We will cut down the tall trees,” says a Hutu militia man. The “tall trees” are the Tutsis, who are supposed to be taller than Hutus, and supposedly lighter skinned. Some dispute that there is any such racial or group difference between the Hutus and Tutsis, though the perception that the groups are different, and that the Tutsis were “privileged,” is what ultimately led to the genocide.
Is it only the Belgians who have human agency?
Before the genocide in 1994, Hutus received racial preferences for 35 years in what was in a manner “official discrimination” carried out by the government (Heycke 103). In the schools, Hutus were instilled with a sense of “ethnic grievance” against the Tutsis (Heycke 103), which was clearly a causal factor leading up to the genocide. The Hutu extremists frequently allude to the Tutsis as “cockroaches,” a fairly typical dehumanization which precedes any mass slaughter. Trees of Peace gives enough context so that one can understand the basic contours of the division in Rwandan society at that time.
A common scapegoat for the stark divisions in Rwandan society are the Belgians; the former colonial power who tended to play off one group against the other in a divide and conquer strategy:
“Although precolonial Rwanda had some conflict, it was comparatively small-sale and almost never occurred along Hutu-Tutsi lines. Colonialists ossified the Hutu-Tutsi distinction with ethnic labels, identity cards, and affirmative action, setting the stage for one of the worst genocide in human history” (Heycke 112).
The Belgians believed the Tutsis to be more competent than the Hutus, and therefore found them to be good administrators. The Hutus were relegated to less prestigious positions such as farming. By issuing identity cards and emphasizing the difference between these two groups, it is thought that the Belgians created the conditions for this awful conflict. It may be that the Belgians increased the ethnic strife with their system of administration; yet to be fair, the Belgians did not tell them to slaughter each other. That the Rwandans did on their own. Trees of Peace, though, implies in the opening of the film that the Belgiums were responsible, stating that the Rwandan genocide was “the peak of a violent history between Hutus and Tutsis, instigated by Belgian colonizers in the early 1990s.” Again, this seems to be the consensus view– that Belgian policy as a colonial power created these divisions. Yet might also the people who actually committed these crimes bear some responsibility? Or is it only the Belgians who have human agency?
“We are going to die in here. Over two weeks and nothing from Belgium,” the character Mutesi complains. While Mutesi blames the Belgians for the genocide, she also expects that they will save the Rwandans from themselves. Belgium is at once the culprit and also a paternal force to sweep in and stop the violence.
After the Hutu president is apparently assassinated in a plane crash, the slaughter against the Tutsis begins. Annik squats on her kitchen floor, preparing her cellar as a hideout. Annik (Eliane Umuhire) portrays the miserable stoicism required of someone in such a circumstance. Added to her problems, she has suffered four miscarriages, which she conveys to her three companions in the cellar with a long-suffering equanimity. She is pregnant and happy to feel her baby boy is kicking, though it is perhaps the worst possible scenario in which to be pregnant. As the days pass, she writes a diary entry in which she addresses her baby:
“Elijah, you have ceased to move. Are you with God, my sweet angel? I fear it so.”
The fate of Annik’s unborn baby adds suspense to the film. It is as though the future of Rwandan society is somehow caught up with the fate of this baby, hanging in the balance. Annik’s husband is the hero of the film, yet also conflicted: He is stuck between trying to continue caring for his wife and saving others in the community who are also hiding and in need of food. Although Annik and her husband are Hutus, they are moderate Hutus. For this they are also deemed “cockroaches” by the Hutu extremists and at risk of being killed.
All four actresses put in earnest and compelling performances and approached their roles with the appropriate gravity.
Mutesi (Bola Koleosho) is so unpleasant and provocative to everyone around her, one almost wonders if she is meant to show why the Titsus were genocided in the first place. That said, she does have her own hostile charm, and eventually her character arc brings her more grace. She concedes, “I don’t want to die with this anger.” She then explains the murder of her family, how she fled, and her guilt about the matter. “We are one,” she now declares to the three other women, in a foreshadow of the coming reconciliation of Rwanda. The solidarity that the four women develop is indeed the point; that unity is the way forward for Rwanda.
Peyton (Ella Cannon), a volunteer from the United States, one might fear will play the “white savior,” a trope so odious to leftists. Instead, she merely displays a Western woman’s pathological need to help, even to the point she sabotages herself by refusing to leave Rwanda with the UN when she has a chance. She has her own tale of woe to tell, and her past fills her with self-loathing.
Jeanette (Charmaine Bingwa) is a nun who is something like the moral compass for the group. “Angels are with us,” she insists, on the first day of their hiding in the cellar. Naturally she is horrified by the genocide ongoing outside the walls of the cellar, and as a character is perfectly blameless. Yet in fact, there were Christians and even nuns who also perpetrated the genocide. Towards the end of the film, when the women have been in the cellar for many months, Jeanette is no longer wearing her habit, as if to symbolize the loss of morals and decency of the Rwandan genocide, something that Christianity could not countenance.
Although the four actresses were appropriately portrayed as quite famished and desperate in the film, I was surprised to see how beautiful they were in their more glamorous photo shoots outside of this film, especially Bola Koleosho and Ella Cannon. All four actresses put in earnest and compelling performances and approached their roles with the appropriate gravity.
Some might have found the film claustrophobic, given the setting of hiding under a floorboard in a small concrete cellar. I did not necessarily find fault with the confined setting, which at least is changed for a few minutes in a vivid dream sequence.
By only hearing the atrocities indirectly, it somehow respects the gravity of what transpired in the genocide. Machine gun rattle can be heard in the background; and the slashing of machetes, the Hutu butchers weapon of choice, along with their triumphant chatter. Fortunately, the women find a place to pee, so that issue has been resolved.
In the conclusion of the film, Annik says:
“We will find healing. We will claim peace.”
Given how amazingly Rwanda recovered and even prospered as a country after the genocide, these are not merely flowery words, but resembles the real history of Rwanda.
Heycke, Jens. Out of the Melting Pot, into the Fire. NY: Encounter Books, 2023.
Trees of Peace. Directed by Alanna Brown. Netflix, 2021.