“Trees of Peace” is about four women, holed up in a basement, trying to survive the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, four strangers trapped in a single room, with little light, food or water for days that stretch to weeks and months.
Screenwriter Alanna Brown makes her writer-director debut a compact, tense, well-acted and quietly gripping “inspired by true events” story of endurance, even if it traffics in the conventions of such dramas.
In cinematic shorthand, it is “Hotel Rwanda,” with its story and characters packed into Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat.”
Rwandan actress Eliane Umuhire narrates the story as pages from a journal her character, Annick, keeps while hiding from the Hutu violence against the minority Tutsis, and against “moderate” Hutus like her and her teacher-husband Francois.
“I can feel my spirit eager for the long sleep,” she wrote, just to document how these four women came to be there in case the seemingly-inevitable happens.
Sister Jeannette (Charmaine Bingwa) and a coed, Peyton (Ella Cannon), a volunteer from an American non-governmental organization, are teachers at a nearby school. Mutesi (Bola Koleosho) is a traumatized woman who saw her family slaughtered, rescued by the others as they locked the hidden cellar door behind them to wait out the mayhem.
Brown cannot avoid working within the conventions of the broader genre that this sort of tale operates under. The first pronouncements from Annick to the others — they are in the basement of her house, with her husband upstairs, trying to keep his loyalties and their presence hidden — are spoken with an irony the viewer appreciates.
“We are safe.” ” They’ll be in hiding in this basement “just until tomorrow.” And “Francois will give us everything we need.”
Nope. Not likely. And sure, that’ll happen.
They will be tested by their ordeal, each revealing “secrets” eventually and personality flaws almost instantly. Brown and her actresses succeed in making these characters more than “types,” but you can see the archetype each plays, just beneath the surface.
Brown layers the soundtrack with the constant noise of life and death going on just outside of the lone ground-level window that connects them with the world. Gunshots and shouting, trucks and the barked orders to “find the cockroaches” are heard, and every so often, the “thk thk thk” of machetes hacking the flesh of a screaming victim.
Among the women, shared paranoia gives way to testy confrontations, hallucinations and dreams heightening their plight, with mutual mistrust all they have to wake up to.
Brown never comes close to transcending the formula this film is made under. But the players, the myopic setting and narrowly-focused screenplay ensure that “Trees of Peace” is a good example of how and why this formula is still around. It endures because it works.
Rating: TV-MA, violence
Cast: Eliane Umuhire, Charmaine Bingwa, Ella Cannon and Bola Koleosho
Credits: Scripted and directed by Alanna Brown. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:38