Nicole Avant on the production of Netflix’s ‘Trees of Peace’

When “Trees of Peace,” a drama set during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, made Netflix’s top 10 English-language movies in June, some were surprised that a low-budget, albeit critically acclaimed, independent film was among the most popular. watched movies of the week. But executive producer Nicole Avant (“The Black Godfather”) was not among them.

“It was amazing. I was surprised how quickly it got so much attention, but I wasn’t surprised,” says Avant. Variety about learning that the movie racked up over 9.3 million hours of viewing in those early days.

For Avant, the numbers indicated that the public was ready and interested in stories like this, despite its great content.

“We’ve all felt pretty beat up for many years, with all this social unrest in the United States and all over the world, and so much negativity,” he explains. “Then here comes this film about strength, about courage, about being victorious, about being vulnerable, about friendship and love, the importance of us looking at each other as a tribe and a family, which is the human family. and the human race. I think that’s what people responded to strongly.”

Also, seeing the film rank in the top 10 in over 30 countries demonstrated another truth about audiences: “We may look different and sound different, speak a different language and be a different religion, but the heart is the same.” she adds.

Written and directed by Alanna Brown, “Trees of Peace” centers on four women: Annick (Eliane Umuhire), a moderate Hutu; Mutesi (Bola Koleosho), a Tutsi woman; Jeanette (Charmaine Bingwa), a Christian nun; and Peyton (Ella Cannon), an American girl visiting Rwanda as part of the Peace Project, hiding in a small underground cellar during the period of ethnic violence, while hundreds of thousands of Tutsi men, women and children were killed by armed men from the Hutu community. Their will is tested as they await bloodshed, day after day, and the women grow closer as they explore their different backgrounds and beliefs.

Bolanie “Bola” Koleosho (Mutesi), Charmaine Bingwa (Jeanette), Elaine Umuhire (Annick), and Ella Cannon (Peyton) in “Trees of Peace.”

Courtesy of Netflix

It’s a survival story that captivated Avant from the moment producers Ron and Michelle Ray approached her with a preview version of the film in 2020.

“I’ve never met anyone so positively aggressive and passionate about any project, and I’ve been at this for a long time,” Avant says, recalling his first conversations with Ron Ray. “I said, ‘Who is running this? Because this footage you sent me is phenomenal. He said: ‘Her name of hers is Alanna Brown. She’s a young African-American girl and it’s her first film.’ That’s what really made me jump.”

As much as she believed in Brown, whom she describes as smart, capable, confident and “so passionate about this story of hope, a story that reminds us all how fragile life is,” Avant was also drawn to the perspective of story about compassion and vulnerability.

“Each theme is something I believe in, or try to live by, or is a theme that rules my soul, whether it’s about strength or choosing to be victorious,” she says. “All of these themes that are very important to me personally in my own soul journey, I saw when I read the script.”

At the time, Avant was looking for a follow-up project to “The Black Godfather,” the award-winning documentary he produced about the life and career of his father, music mogul Clarence Avant. He was also in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, where he found himself re-evaluating the type of projects he wanted to get involved with.

“The world closed and all our perspectives changed,” he recalls. “Suddenly, I was re-examining my life, asking myself ‘What’s important? What is not important? What kind of stories do I want to put out into the world as a producer? What do I want my name on? It was much more important to me in 2020 than ever before.”

One scene in particular caught Avant’s attention: when Annick (Umuhire) and her husband, Francois (Tongayi Chirisa) make the decision to hide the other three women in their house.

“It was really beautiful what they were doing, how selfless the act was. We’re going to hide other people who don’t even love us, who see us as the enemy, but we see them as human and we’re going to hide them,” she remembers thinking. “That just triggered something inside my heart and made me wonder, ‘Wow, would I do that? Am I that big of a person? Am I that selfless?’”

Elaine Umuhire (Annick) and Tongayi Chrisia (Francois) in “Trees of Peace”.

Courtesy of Netflix

With the exception of 2004’s “Hotel Rwanda,” the genocide story hasn’t received much attention in Hollywood, and Avant found Brown’s focus on the female perspective particularly interesting, given the political changes that resulted from this period in time, as that Rwanda now has the highest percentage of women appointed to government anywhere in the world. Intimately aware of the experience of women in politics as the former US ambassador to the Bahamas, Avant was interested in illustrating “how they took something so tragic and horrible, and found a way to move forward and make it better and move forward. ”

She adds: “I was so proud that Alanna wanted to tell this story and really highlight the power of unity and the power of women, coming together and saying, ‘Something terrible happened, but what are we going to do about it now? How are we going to push this forward for the next generation that hopefully doesn’t happen again?’”

Where society has focused so much on examining what’s wrong with our relationships with others, Avant hopes “Trees of Peace” provides audiences with an example of what can happen when we do the right thing.

“This movie is about humanity and how we treat each other. It’s about the goodness of humanity and the not-so-goodness of humanity,” explains Avant. “Humans are the only animals on the planet that have free will, so we can choose every day how we will behave and how we will show up in the world. And I think this movie calls the audience to ask, ‘How am I going to appear in the world? Who am I in the world? And what kind of energy do I want to emit?’”

After Avant signed on, the filmmakers continued to toy with the project, eventually premiering the film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in April 2021, where it won two Best Picture awards, including the ADL Stand Up Award winner. and winning the Panavision Spirit. Independent Film Award.

The film garnered further accolades at the American Black Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Film and Brown was named Best Director and won the John Singleton Award for Best First Feature, as well as at the African International Film Fest, the Phoenix Film Fest, the Swiss International Film Festival and WorldFest Houston.

“I remember the first [award] walking in and I said to myself, ‘I knew it,’” exclaims Avant. “It felt so good to have been so passionate and put so much energy into something, and been on a journey with such amazing people, and then to see these accolades come back for Alanna, Ron and Michelle. It was the icing on the cake for me.”

Netflix picked up the rights to the project in March, in a very competitive situation, after CEO Ted Sarandos, Avant’s husband, witnessed his emotional reaction to the final cut. “It’s funny, I try not to mix business with my personal life,” says Avant. She wasn’t planning on pitching the project to the streamer, but his almost hysterical tears and his effusive praise for Brown intrigued Sarandos, and when he saw the movie, his reaction was decisive. “He just said, I think we have a home for her.”

And the rest is streaming history.

Becoming a film producer was a dream that appeared later in Avant’s life, but growing up, her parents, Clarence and the late Jacqueline Avant, a philanthropist, fostered her love of the arts, especially motion pictures, and exposed her to its potential to create. change. Jacqueline Avant had a particular affinity for documentaries, sitting her daughter down to watch PBS and seminal films or docuseries like “Eye on the Prize.”

“She understood the power of images,” recalls Avant. “It was like, ‘I can talk about injustice and you could read about it, but if you really look at it, it will change your perspective forever.’ She gave me that gift of always loving stories and anything in film that was inspiring and empowering and motivating, and it changed my spirit for the better.”

Avant has a few other projects in the works; Next up is another storytelling feature, details of which have yet to be announced. But she scoffs that it’s a movie about redemption and triumph. “It’s always about the human spirit. Because those are always the movies that got me to where I am today,” she explains.

While his love of documentaries slightly outweighs his affinity for fiction, Avant is more focused on what the films he makes will say to the world and what medium he will use to say it.

“Whether it’s a documentary or a movie, I always want to remind humans of the best version of the human spirit,” he says. “I just want to produce something that really makes you think and focus and understand, learn about other people and make yourself better in some way. Anything I attach my name to, I hope it makes people better or creates healing.”

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