In 2007 Leah Warshawski travelled to Rwanda. Her intention was simple: to make a documentary about a software company. What she found changed her life forever.
‘We hired some additional gear and crew members from the Rwanda Cinema Centre and they told us about ‘Hillywood.’ she recalls. ‘Like most people, we were intrigued by the idea of a film festival in the jungle.’
What is Hillywood? Put simply, it’s a film festival in the hills. Every year in March, a group of filmmakers travels to remote villages in Rwanda displaying films for local audiences on a giant inflatable screen.
These have become huge events. Thousands of people flock from the surrounding area. For many, this is the first time they will ever see a film at all, let alone one made in their local language, Kinyarwandan.
‘It’s incredible,’ Leah adds. ‘Some people walk for miles to get to the screenings, many without shoes on. Men, women, children – everyone shows up and it seems like they’ve been waiting all year. And the weather never stops them.’
It is indeed a spectacular sight, made all the more remarkable when you consider Rwanda’s dark history. Just 15 years ago this country tore itself apart. In a hundred bloody days, Hutu militia butchered a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The country was left devastated.
A third of the population was dead. There was no government, no infrastructure and no education. Ironically, through this catastrophe, the seeds of Rwandan film were sown. A couple of years after the genocide, Eric Kabera, a local fixer for international journalists, decided to make a film to highlight Rwanda’s plight. After years of struggle he finally succeeded in 2001, with the film 100 Days.
Directed by Nick Hughes, a British cameraman who had filmed the only surviving footage of the actual killings, this was the first picture to seriously grapple with the genocide.
It would not be the last. Films such as Shooting Dogs, Sometimes in April and Hotel Rwanda helped establish the genocide firmly on the psychological landscape of the world.
However, the effects went further than that. These films inspired the nation. Locals took work on set as extras or production assistants. For a time it seemed as if everyone in Kigali was either a director or actor.
By 2005, the country had its own film festival. It was a small affair at first, but has grown rapidly. This year’s event was the biggest ever, attracting films from all over the world. In 2007, the Tribeca Film Festival hosted a special event, ‘Three Voices: Focus on Rwanda’. Guests were treated to three independent films from students of the Rwandan Cinema Centre, as well as speeches from President Paul Kagame and Bill Clinton. Such world attention pays tribute to the work of Kabera and others in creating a Rwandan film culture out of nothing. However, it also indicates the lasting fascination in the genocide and Rwanda’s attempts to recover.
‘The theme and the name of Rwanda itself are sufficient to draw an interest to the subject,’ Kabera explains. ‘Our tragic past somehow shapes our present situation and influences our future.’
Kabera himself revisited the subject for his most recent project, Iseta Behind the Roadblock, which he co-directed and produced.
‘It’s a film of the only footage taken during the genocide, the footage shot by Nick Hughes in 1994 of a group of women and men being clubbed to death by their neighbour,’ he explains. ‘These were the opening days of the Rwandan genocide, and even though almost one million people were slaughtered, remarkably there is only one known segment of footage showing any actual killing.’
However, therein lies the problem. The genocide provides a ready flow of stories and inspiration, but it can be counterproductive. As Rwanda’s fledgling film industry seeks to grow and evolve, filmmakers are finding it difficult to get films made that tackle any other subject.
One such project is Kamugi.com. Directed by Fiona Mukandete, this is a simple rom-com about a houseboy who falls in love with his boss’s daughter.
Next year might see one of the defining projects for Rwandan film. Africa United is the first British/Rwandan co-production and follows the story of a group of young children as they walk from Kigali to South Africa to take part in a skills show at the soccer World Cup.
As for Leah and her team, they’re currently working on a documentary following the Hillywood festival as it journeys from place to place. Work is ongoing, but you can follow their progress and watch a magnificent teaser trailer at www.inflatablefilm.com. Can these films break the mould? If so, Hillywood will be the reason. It has helped the country’s new film talent hone their skills, as well as exposing people to films made in Rwanda, by Rwandans. That gives this nascent culture a fierce independence. However, it’s a flame that remains perilously fragile. The future looks promising, but making it happen could still be difficult.