There are several documentaries out there at the moment about the Nigerian film industry, movies clearly in awe of the money that Nollywood generates, the sheer volume of movies being made, the colorful characters who make up the landscape of what is the third movie industry in the world. And it’s great that these docs exist, because if there’s one thing the growing awareness of Nollywood has done it’s proven that there is a market for films in Africa, films made for and by Africans on their own terms.
Finding Hillywood, Leah Warshawski and Christopher Towey’s documentary about the budding Rwandan film economy, proves the same point in a much different way. Unlike the distinct movie-culture of Nigeria, the doc reveals that with no movie theatres and no real film schools, there is a near non-existent tradition of moviegoing in Rwanda. Enter the Kwetu Film Institute. Founded by filmmaker Eric Kabera, the institute is the first of its kind in Rwanda, set up to train those interested in movies how to tell cinematic stories. Every year, the institute runs the “Hillywood” Film Festival, a 12 day fest that showcases Rwandan films throughout the countryside on an inflatable movie screen - it’s often the first time that some fest goers have ever seen a movie, especially one in the Rwandan language.
The doc follows the Hillywood team in their difficult but satisfying work - dealing with superstorms due to rainy season, lack of electricity, and sometimes lack of interest. Shot in a vibrant but not terribly original style, what makes Finding Hillywood so interesting is the human stories behind the people who put the fest together. We meet a young woman whose passionate about making films dealing with the rights of women and children, a man who’s interested in crafting movies that buck the conventions of Hollywood love stories. What’s great about meeting these filmmakers is that we get to see extensive clips from their work, allowing the directors and their movies to speak from themselves. Perhaps one of the flaws of the documentary, though, is that at only 58 minutes long, we don’t get to spend as much time with the team as we’d like.
At the heart of the documentary is director and actor Ayuub Kasasa Mago, manager of the Hillywood Festival. Once driven to alcoholism and drug addiction after the death of his mother at the hands of militia, a chance gig on The Last King of Scotland introduced him to a passion for making movies. Charming, expressive, and a great storyteller, it’s Mago who sets the tone for the doc’s undercurrent early on when he says: “The history of [the genocide in Rwanda] is always present.” Indeed, many of the films screened during Hillywood deal directly with the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the mere hundred days that saw the country lose 20% of its entire population.
One of the most striking moments in the doc comes as the inflatable Hillywood screen is going up on some empty lot or football pitch. Beside it is a memorial for a mass grave. The camera pans left. Suddenly, we see literally thousands of people, many of them no older than ten, waiting eagerly for a movie to begin. The image is the perfect metaphor for what the Hillywood Festival means to Rwanda. Movies are cathartic, and what Finding Hillywood so effectively demonstrates is that these movies, this festival, is presenting a new way for Rwandans to come to terms with their past, and to heal.