It’s been 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of up to 1 million citizens, mainly Tutsis, in a mass ethnic slaughter by the Hutu they lived alongside. As the country’s infrastructure has rebuilt itself so too has its culture, and a new documentary seeks to chronicle Rwanda’s nascent film industry.
"Finding Hillywood" largely follows the journey of Ayuub Kasasa Mago, a Rwandan filmmaker and actor whose mother was murdered during the 1994 genocide. For Ayuub, having struggled since those days, film was a saving grace. He came to cinema by chance when he landed a small gig on a crew for the filming of “The Last King of Scotland,” which was about Idi Amin's dictatorship in neighboring Uganda. Since then he hasn't looked back.
Now Ayuub is part of a dedicated group of Rwandan filmmakers on a mission to develop a film industry. They call themselves Hillywood, so named for the "thousand hills" of the country. They travel from village to village, setting up mobile theaters and spreading the word. Rwanda is still a very poor country, and for many this is their first exposure to film.
The hope is that the communal experience of watching film will help heal a still wounded nation. The hope is also that filmmakers from outside the country will come to see Rwanda as an attractive location for productions.
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In conjunction with the film, director Leah Warshawski has also set up RwandaFilm.org, a site for local filmmakers to network and build contacts.
She spoke with International Business Times about her experiences making the film and what she hopes for the future of the Rwanda film industry.
IBT: What made you want to make a documentary about film in Rwanda?
Warshawski: We were in Rwanda on a totally different project for a different company and we met some local filmmakers. We hire local filmmakers wherever we go. The last day we were there we were asking them, “What else do you guys do?” And they told us about Hillywood. And the idea of thousands of people standing in a stadium watching movies together for the first time in their own language was really intriguing for us. I think for most filmmakers that idea is intriguing, the power that cinema can have. And that was kind of the beginning. We knew we wanted to make a film. We started making a film about the festival and it turned into more of a character study over the course of six years.
IBT: It centers largely around Ayuub Kasasa Mago, a Rwandan filmmaker whose mother was killed in the genocide, Can you tell us about this journey to film?
Warshawski: He got his first job working on "The Last King of Scotland" just by chance. And then he kept working in the industry from there, but that was really his first opportunity to work in the film industry. And he talks about that a little more in our film, but he didn’t take a traditional path, like a lot of filmmakers. And we can certainly identify with that.
IBT: What do you think it is about film as an artistic form that’s important to Rwandans?
Warshawski: This is the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide this year, and film for them, and I think for most people, can be used to heal. There’s something you feel when you’re there watching a film at Hillywood in the jungle with thousands of other people. You feel there’s something transformative about that. And most certainly Ayuub’s own redemption has come through filmmaking and making films for him. He has very personal stories about that. And for a lot of the other filmmakers as well there, they maybe not able to talk about their experiences but it does come out in films that they make and so enabling people to tell their own stories is really powerful and film is a powerful medium to do that.
IBT: What are some of the film that Rwandans are eager to make? Are there themes you see emerging?
Warshawski: Initially they were making films about pretty heavy topics. Most of them centered around domestic violence, genocide, war and now there’s the whole gamut. Although, and Ayuub even says in our films that genocide is part of their everyday society no matter what, the films they’re making are cartoons, animations, documentaries, narratives. The industry is growing and there’s much more variety now. And by the way, they absolutely love music videos so those are huge. Those are always a big hit with the kids. So they’re starting to make the whole gamut.
IBT: How can those of us in the West who are interested in seeing films coming out of Rwanda or supporting films coming out of Rwanda, how can we get involved?
Warshawski: All of the filmmakers in our film are very accessible online. You can find all of them and ask them to watch their films and see what they’re working on. And we also created an outreach site. It’s called RwandaFilm.org and we worked in partnership with BPeace and the Academy of Motion Pictures and also two organizations in Rwanda, the Ministry of Sports and culture and a development board. All of these organizations are coming together to create kind of this LinkedIn for Rwandan filmmakers, but also for the international community to get in touch with filmmakers there. If you have a project, if you’re a journalist going into film for the 20th anniversary and you have a project and you need crew in Rwanda, we really want this to be kind of the one stop shop. It has crew, it has locations, it has discussion boards, photos and travel tips. This site, the RwandaFilm.org site, is really what we hope will outlast our film. We want to help the film industry grow, the film economy grow and we believe that finding jobs for people, that jobs will bring peace. We want everybody to keep working. We want to keep working and we want the filmmakers in Rwanda to keep working as well. I would urge people to check out that site, like the Facebook page and keep that site in mind if you are traveling to East Africa or know anybody going over there who needs some help.
IBT: Going back to your film, can you give us a quick check list of the awards and recognition that "Finding Hillywood" has received so far?
Warshawski: We’ve won four major awards, we won the audience award for best documentary at the Napa Film Festival in November. We won the best documentary by a Pacific Northwest filmmaker at the Eugene [Oregon] Festival. We won an award, a third prize for best documentary at the Afghanistan Human Rights Festival. And we were the Women In Film-sponsored film last year, they only choose one to sponsor and they sponsored ours in Seattle. We won the best mid-length film at the Montreal Black Film Festival last year as well. We’re up for a couple of awards right now, but I don’t want to jinx anything. Hopefully we’ll have more to add to the list this year. We’ve got a lot of festivals coming up.
IBT: What’s next? A DVD, a larger theatrical release?
Warshawski: We partnered with GATHR for theatrical on-demand, so you can actually request our movie to screen in your local movie theater. You can go to our website. It’s findinghillywood.com. You can request the movie in your theater. We have an international rep trying to sell broadcast rights internationally. We have an educational distributor in New York who’s selling to libraries and colleges and universities. And we’re still looking for domestic broadcast, so if you know any networks that might want to screen our film, we’re still looking for that. We have DVDs for sale in person right now. When we go to the festivals, I’m selling them, but probably not online for a couple months, because we really want people to see this film in a theater, which is why we partnered with GATHR. We feel like it’s a movie about a festival, you should see it in a festival environment, you should see it with other people and we’re really hoping that we can bring the film to different communities that way before we put it on DVD and digital.
IBT: Those are all my questions. Anything I’ve missed you think is important?
Warshawski: I just wanted to note that we are looking for outreach funds this year to keep managing the RwandaFilm.org site, but our goal is really to transition the site over to a Rwandan organization this year and so we are looking for interested parties in Rwanda who might want to manage the site. So I would just urge people to check it out and if you know anybody locally in Rwanda that they may want to take that on, that would be wonderful. We have been working the last couple of years to develop and create it and thankfully BPeace and the Academy have done so much work for the site and it looks really great, but we’re not going to be running that site much longer. The idea is to really transition it over and to watch it grow from within Rwanda, not from outside. And so that is one of our major goals this year.